Too Much of a Good Thing is Bad for People & the Planet

Too Much of a Good Thing is Bad for People & the Planet

The science of behavioural economics, along with new work being done around happiness studies and  climate change communications, offer fresh insights into how to get people to change. The food we eat, the cars we drive, the size of the houses we build and buy – all the choices we make – have global environmental consequences. Marc Gunther gets us thinking about over-consumption.

by Marc Gunther on March 14 2010, 12:06

“Consumption is a tricky issue for us, but we need to start talking about it.”

So says Peter Lehner,  executive director of the Natural Resources Defense Council. This is welcome news. Like the other big environmental NGOs, NRDC has shied away from telling people what to eat (less red meat and dairy), what kinds of cars to drive (smaller ones), whether to fly (not too much)  or how many homes to own (one).

That may be about to change.

I spoke to Lehner last week after a three-day symposium on Climate, Mind and Behavior, sponsored by NRDC and the Garrison Institute, a nonprofit whose program on “transformational ecology” is led by Jonathan F.P. Rose, a New York real estate developer who also sits on NRDC’s board.  The event was designed explore ways to change behavior on a scale big enough to have a major impact on global GHG emissions.

The stellar group of participants included enviromentalists (Paul Hawken, Van Jones and Gus Speth), investors and business people (Mark Fulton and Bruce Kahn of Deutsche Bank, Jesse Fink of MissionPoint Capital Partners, Jack Jacometti of Shell) and academics (Dr. Benjamin Barber, John Gowdy of RPI, Jon Krosnick of Stanford and Anthony Leiserowitz of Yale).

The headline out of the event: Simple and inexpensive changes could reduce global warming emissions by one billion tons.

Put another way, the NRDC says changes in behavior could generate as many reductions as one of  the “climate stabilization wedges” made famous (at least among climate geeks) by Princeton professors Stephen Pacala and Robert Socolow in this 2004 article in Science.

As Lehner puts it: “If all Americans acted together, by taking fairly modest steps, many of which are cost-saving or cost-neutral and will give them better lives, we could eliminate emissions, equivalent to those of the entire nation of Germany.”

“People often ask, if I change my behavior, what difference will it make?” Lehner goes on. “This analysis showed that it makes a lot of difference. That’s exciting.”

He hastens to add that individual actions cannot be a substitute for the policy changes needed to curb emissions and promote clean energy. Instead, he hopes, personal and individual actions will lead to activism.

“If you start biking to work,” he says, “you may become more active in your community, to make sure there are bike lanes. Policy is no longer abstract. It’s very real.”

Here are some of the recommendations from NRDC and the Garrison Institute. They may sound familiar, but bear with me–there’s a potential for new thinking here:

Fly once less per year: The average one-way commercial flight from London to Los Angeles produces more greenhouse gas emissions per passenger than the average British commuter produces yearly by car, train, and subway combined…While it would be unreasonable to expect those who fly only one or two times per year to give up their flight (that flight could well be their vacation), frequent flyers, and especially business travelers, could take advantage of alternative options like telecommuting to cut down on air travel.

Consume less red meat and dairy: All meats are not created equal: while the average pound of beef consumed in the United States is responsible for 20 pounds of emissions, a pound of chicken is responsible for less than two. Today’s average American consumes a prodigious quantity of red meat: the equivalent of one McDonald’s Angus Bacon and Cheese Burger per day. Replacing two days’ servings of red meat with poultry will reduce emissions by more than 70 MMtCO2e in 2020. Dairy cattle similarly produce vast quantities of greenhouse gas emissions. Dropping dairy two days per week in favor of plantbased foods is not only healthy—animal fats are closely correlated to obesity, diabetes and many forms of cancer—but will save more than 35 MMtCO2e in 2020.

Consume paper and plastics more responsibly: Buying recycled paper, stemming the flow of unwanted catalogs by two-thirds, and reducing printer paper consumption by one-third (easily achieved by printing doublesided) will save more than 50 MMtCO2e in 2020. Dropping bottled water consumption by 50 percent in that same timeframe will save another 8 MMtCO2e.

I’ve deliberately selected the recommendations that affect consumption. Others are less controversial and more familiar: Replace incandescent bulbs with CFLs, reduce motor vehicle idling, fix leaks and heat loss in your house, unplug appliances and turn the thermostat down a bit in winter and up a bit in summer (cardigan not required).

So what’s new here? Two things, I think.

The first is that the science of behavioral economics, along with new work being done around happiness studies and  climate change communications, offer fresh insights into how to get people to change. I’ve written about these developments before (see What’s for lunch? Behaviorial economics meets climate change and How to talk about climate change) and they are exciting.

One of the fundamental insights of behavioral economics is that people are not merely the rational, self-interested beings of Economics 101, but also emotional creatures, capable of altruism and influenced by the behavior of others. Much of our political discourse, including the debate about climate-change policies, focuses around the question of “what’s in it for me?” (This is why we hear so much about “green jobs.”) Some behaviorial economists argue that environmentalists would do well to  appeal to our better natures.

Here are a couple of brief excerpts from a draft paper by RPI’s John Gowdy, who spoke at the event:

In contrast to the policy recommendations of most economists, relying on monetary incentives to tackle collective choice problems like global warming can actually have perverse effects. As many environmental philosophers have argued (Norton 2005; O’Neal 1993) giving people a shared responsibility and appealing directly to a sense of the common good is a much more effective way of gaining acceptance for environmental policies….

Successfully dealing with global climate may require cooperation on an unprecedented scale among people with radically different values and radically different needs. Formulating policies that tap into our social and genetic heritage of cooperation offers the best hope for success.

The other thing that’s new here is the potential for a conversation about consumption. For the most part, businesses won’t lead that conversation and until recently, environmental groups haven’t either. As Lehner put it: “We’ve talked about it passively on our website….What we are now exploring is talking about it a little more actively.”

This won’t be easy. It’s hard to talk about overconsumption without sounding like you are hectoring people. “It’s tricky because it’s personal,” Lehner says. “It’s hard to talk about somebody else’s life.”

But as we used to say in the 60s, the personal is political. It’s not simply a personal choice to drive an SUV when you don’t need one; it’s an anti-social act, as is idling your car when it’s part outside the dry cleaners or Starbucks. The food we eat, the cars we drive, the size of the houses we build and buy and other choices we make have global environmental consequences–particularly because Americans are, on a per capita basis, among the biggest polluters on the planet. So let’s get the conversation going.


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