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The green broken record

2009/10/31

The mid-sized college town where I currently reside prides itself on being a healthy, decent place to raise your kids. Decent schools, safe neighborhoods, lots of volunteerism, good old-fashioned American values. So in the spirit of civic responsibility and making the community an even better place, the university and the mayor’s office put on a couple of sustainability conferences this year. All well and good—we got to hear a bit from local officials or experts about what’s being done or what might be done to create a sustainable community, have a cookie or two (while I am not a grad student, the free cookie bribe still has a wickedly strong pull), and then meet in smaller groups to discuss possible action items. These groups were divided into higher education, business and community as a way to focus the brainstorming.

I attended the community session both times. At the first conference, quite a large number of community activists attended and the session got a little heated in the traditional diehard greenie vs. evil business owner way. The second time around, we seemed to have lost the unaffiliated community activist crowd (i.e. most attendees worked for a green business, a local or state enviro agency, a local-ish university, etc, but not the guy trying to organize folks in his neighborhood to protect green space or what have you). So the session did not involve any heated arguments and instead devolved into a different, but still traditional, let’s brainstorm about eco-friendly things we could do to make the place better. Like educate people about recycling, water and energy conservation, walkable communities, etc. The only vaguely original idea I heard was using woody biomass to supply all of the energy needs of the university (good luck with that, really).

And that’s part of the problem, isn’t it? We’re still having the same conversations; we’re still talking about the same solutions; we’re still holding on to this idea that we just need to educate people more and the problems will magically go away. Let’s take recycling, since that was one of the main themes at the session. The action item that a lot of people agreed on was that we needed more education programs to get homeowners and businesses to recycle more. Because it was a lack of awareness that’s the problem.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I’ve had recycling education in some way or another for twenty-something years. So at this point a lot of those kids who have heard about recycling and how important and easy it is for years are parents and employees. Their kids are getting the same education about recycling. And yet, the common complaint is that the neighbors aren’t recycling, just look at all of that cardboard and plastic stacked up on the curb. And these same people, educated about recycling, aren’t recycling at the office either. So, yes, absolutely, what we should do is try educating people more because we just haven’t told them enough about recycling to get the response we want.

This is when I brought up some of the things people have tried with nudges, that concept of tweaking something in the environment to get people to make the preferred choice. I was thinking about my power bill rather than recycling and comparing the experiences here with those I had in Arizona. My Arizona bill included a chart showing my usage over the last year; my current bill just acknowledges the amount I paid the previous month. So here, unless I go back to previous bills, I can’t really tell if I’m doing better or worse this month or compare this month to last year. There’s no feedback, positive or negative. (There’s a power or water company out there that experimented with adding emoticons to the bills to encourage conservation—a smiley if you conserved power or water and a frown if you hadn’t. That little addition was enough to get people to start changing their habits. And I can’t come up with the link right now, sorry.) I have the education; I know that I should conserve power, but I don’t have any easy way to see the results. Given that my life is relatively straightforward, i.e. no spouse or kids to worry about, and yet I still don’t feel like I have the time to spend tracking down previous usage totals for comparison, how do we expect people with lives to do it?

We know the answer—they’re not. And so we’ve missed an opportunity to push them towards the outcome we want. Obviously, recycling is a little trickier. It would require, probably, instituting a pay as you throw billing method and curbside pickup (seriously, if I have to pay to recycle and there are easily four different recycling pickup companies, that is kind of a lot of trouble to go through; no wonder adoption rates are low). We have to start giving people easier ways to incorporate eco-friendly actions into their daily lives. And feedback to give that little extra something to motivate them to do it.

But the session ended; my groupmates looked at me like I was nuts when I brought up nudges; and everyone went home feeling pretty good about themselves for doing something good. Status quo, really.

Update: New York Times article about zero waste waste management. Although I hesitate to call required composting and recycling and a national park’s switch to bioplastics a nudge to get people to recycle. They haven’t really made a choice to do those things.

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