Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Chapter 14 Relational Summary: Changing Behavior to Save the Environment

The night this course began I was staying at the elegant five star Fairmont Four Seasons Hotel in Hamburg planning a Spring Environmental Event with the head of marketing and the head of Engineering.  This year, 2011, Hamburg has been elected the "green capital" of Europe, and a trip to the environmental information center next to the main train station explains why:
Hamburg is "burying" 35 kilometers of congested and noisy highway this year, taking a section of the busiest road that has separated two sections of the city for a generation and caused terrible air and noise pollution, and sticking it underground in a tunnel. Where the highway currently creates an eyesore and social barrier there will instead be parkland, cafes, bicycle paths and water features.  In addition, Hamburg has inexpensive "for rent" bicycles all over the city and a network of vegetated bicycle paths that makes it one of the most bike-friendly cities in the world.  Hamburg boasts 250,000 street trees and 180,000 more in parks and green spaces throughout the built environment.  Special electric charging stations are being erected throughout the city for electric vehicles whose purchase are encouraged through government subsidies.  The trains running through the city are already powered by 100% renewable energy from hydropower, wind, biogas and solar installations; even the once unsightly toxic landfill is now a biogas producing green hill of parkland covered with photovoltaics and windmills, demonstrating to the public that industrial ecology can turn all wastes into things of value. Even the Four Seasons luxury hotel boasts awards for its low energy LED chandeliers and room and hall lighting, its meticulous waste separation and its new computer controlled heat transfer system that moves hot air and water in the winter  from places in the hotel where they are in excess to places where they are needed -- and does the same things for cold air and water in the summer.

How has Hamburg been able to do this when so many other post-industrial cities are laboring under their environmentally destructive legacies?

One reason is the strong history of the green party in Germany (the land where green political parties began).  Instead of being a fringe thing, environmental consciousness is part of German pride.  The other strong factor is that the citizens of Hamburg believe that environmental improvements are economic improvements. The Germans are known for their attention to efficiency and efficiency IS the essence of environmental technology -- waste and pollution and degradation are considered by many Germans as mere symptoms of badly designed systems.

Are the Germans unique in this? Can all of us change our behavior to save the environment?

In Environmental Psychology (5th edition), on page 478, Table 14-1 shows the "Relative Impact of Interventions to Save the Commons". The authors weigh the impacts of 9 factors that influence "environmentally sound behavior" and come up with the following table relating "factor" to "impact":

Social Attraction: 0.12;  Group Identity 0.11; Trust 0.08; Moral Suasion .05; Structural Privatization .30; Communication .15 (according to one set of authors) .44 (according to another); Reinforcement Feedback .16, .19;  Reward 0.09 (one group of authors) 0.17 (another group) 0.26 (yet another group of authors) Punishment 0.19 (one group) 0.40 (another group).

Obviously there is a lot of variance between different author's conclusions. Can these "impact" statistics be relied upon?  The authors of Environmental Psychology state on page 494 in a section called "Individual Sacrifice and Commitment to Conservation":
A look at Table 14-1 suggests that appeals to pro-environmental action through moral suasion and altering social relations are relatively ineffective compared with interventions such as rewards and punishments that directly benefit or punish the individual.

But then they note,

While there is every reason to believe that appealing to self-interest motives is effective (e.g pocketing savings from energy conservation, free tokens for using mass transit, payments for recycling  aluminum cans), there is a growing body of evidence that people's dedication  to saving the environment can lead at least some to forgo selfish benefits, assume personal responsibility, and endure personal sacrifice in order to promote conservation of the enviornment (e.g. Geller, 1995; Kaiser & Shimoda, 1999; Werner & Makela, 1998). Those high in self-transcendant, biosphere oriented or ecocentric values and low in self-interest values do tend to have much more favorable attitudes toward preserving the environment and do report more environmentally friendly behavior.

I have a problem with both the impact studies and the conclusions of the author.  It isn't that what is being studied or reported or theorized is not "true".  It's that when we talk about attitudes toward "the environment" we aren't saying much at all because there is no such place. There is no such thing as "the environment", and the so called "impacts" are a moving target in a nebulous and ever changing landscape.

There is so much confusion about what constitutes "environmentally friendly behavior" that it is hard to know if people reporting their successes aren't merely parroting a particular zeitgeist, winning approval points for doing whatever is currently in fashion in their social group.  If being "transcendent" is the "in-thing" (as it was temporarily in the late 1960s when the "environmental movement" began) then when it falls out of fashion and "self-interest" becomes popular (as it did in the 1980s during the era of Wall Street and Reaganomics) those same people suddenly become "anti-environmentalists". Yet ask them what they are doing and they will say, "I'm just being realistic" or "I'm going with the flow" or "look, don't blame me, I'm doing what I'm supposed to". 

"Mother Culture" dictates the behavior of most people under the Bell Curve and the outliers are always outliers until the bell curve shifts.  What we really want to know if we want to change behavior to "save the environment", in my opinion, are three things:

1) What shifts the bell curve?
2) Which environments are we trying to "save"?
3) Which environments do we actually want to "change".

Then we need to start applying what we know about shifting masses of behavior to targeted outcomes. The problem is we don't really have a clear idea about what we want to accomplish.

  Is it better to replace all your old light bulbs with new, more efficient ones?  It depends on the size of the effort.  Some would argue (not me!) that by getting rid of old light bulbs that are perfectly good (even if energy wasteful) we add to the waste burden and consume more energy in the manufacturing of new bulbs (however efficient) than we save by keeping old lights burning.  The same argument is made by some for automobiles. When I visited Havana and went around western Cuba I noticed that they had kept those old Plymouths and Chevrolets from the 1950's running and in great condition. It was like going back in time standing on a street corner in Cuba's capital city watching the parade of old vehicles.  Is it really better to scrap all your old cars (which takes energy and creates waste) and manufacture millions of new cars, just because they are smaller and burn less gas? Some might argue no.

Of course there is a rational way out of this mess.  It is called "life-cycle analysis" or LCA (see http://www.gdrc.org/uem/lca/life-cycle.html for a description and history).  LCA takes a "cradle-to-grave" approach to every item and asks the question "from the moment you start bringing the resources together to make this thing to the moment it is thrown in the landfill, how much energy does it use -- to manufacture, transport, use and discard throughout its whole life cycle?"

Ecological Economists use LCA to make good side by side comparisons of products and processes and can help us decide when it is good to replace, when to reduce, when to  re-use and when to recycle (the last three being the  three R's of environmentalism, see http://www.reducereuserecycle.co.uk/).

Generally LCA produces great results. But LCA has been used improperly too -- for example when economists antagonistic to solar energy put out studies suggesting that solar panels consume more energy in their manufacture than they deliver during their useful life. It turns out that on deeper analysis they don't but the entire field of LCA for renewable technologies suffers from lack of transparency in calculations, poor methodology, use of outdated data and shifting horizons.  As Katharine Myrans points out in her 2009 paper "Comparative Energy and Carbon Assessment of Three Green Technologies for a Toronto Roof" ( https://tspace.library.utoronto.ca/bitstream/1807/18905/1/Myrans_Katharine_O_200911_MSc_thesis.pdf)

In general, improvements to the silicon process, as well as in accounting
methodologies, have led to significant decreases in energy inputs and carbon outputs over
time. However, because a large range of values continues to exist, even among the newest
studies, it was necessary for this study to conduct a basic process-chain analysis of
material and energy inputs into silicon panels to accurately determine carbon emissions.
And there is one of the most frustrating things about life cycle analysis and any kind of attempt to be an 'environmentally conscious consumer'.  The sheer rate of technological change makes it impossible to really quantify any given technology's impact over the lifetime of the concept.   Can we really say that driving cars is "bad"?  What if all those cars were electric and powered, like the trains of Hamburg, with 100% renewable, clean energy?  And what if we all used Amory Lovins Hypercar concept (see http://www.hypercars.com/) and each car was its own mobile power station. (Amory Lovins runs the Rocky Mountain Institute, the green think tank mentioned on p. 499 of Environmental Psychology).  Might we not have an obligation to unplug our car from our houses (where they charged overnight from the energy produced from last night's kitchen garbage) and drive our cars over to our workplace and plug them in again to help power the building? Wouldn't any employee who didn't bring his hypercar to the office be accused of "not doing his share to help the environment"?  Like many things, what makes something "bad" is not the object itself but what it does to the health of and well being of others.

More useful to me are rather mundane questions that any 3 year old understands:
"By doing what you are doing are you hurting anybody else?"
"Is there a way to do what you want without making somebody else suffer?"
"If there is, why aren't you doing it the nice way."

For me environmental improvements are all about "playing nice".   Amory Lovins at the Rocky Mountain Institute (http://www.rmi.org/rmi/) is cited in our textbook for his work helping industry profits by going green. 

For example... the U.S. Post Office in Reno, Nevada spent $300,000 in lighting improvements and saved $50,000 per year in energy costs -- enough to recover the investment in 6 years.  A major discount retail  chain built an environmentally friendly store in Lawrence, Kansas, which used natural lighting through skylights on one side of the store; cash register sales where twice as high on the naturally lighted side of the store.  A major manufacturer "greened" up a new building to drastically cut energy use and found that worker absenteeism fell 15% and productivity rose 15%, more than making up for the increased cost of the building (RMI, 1994, quoted on p. 499).

So if going green saves money and increases profits, what is all the fuss about?

Well, in parts of Germany like Hamburg there isn't much fuss. The families that live in and run businesses in Hamburg have been there for centuries and they don't want to go anywhere. It is THEIR environment. So it has very little to do with saving THE environment -- they are investing in and recouping the profits from saving THEIR environment. Is this transcendence or self-interest? Or both?
But in many places in America business is run like a Casino, as I have written in previous posts. People are in to "get rich quick". And when you are trying to get rich quick you don't play nice.  Like locusts, you want to swarm in, take as much as you can, and get out. To hell with "the environment" in the place you are raping and pillaging.  As marauding armies have known for millenia, this strategy is all about sacking the village and moving on; leave it to the survivors to put things back together. But it isn't just wanton destruction by an army of insensitive miners or loggers or developers that leads to terrible environmental degradation. The sum total impact of each of us, refusing to consider the impact of our behavior on others (because, hell, we can always move to Florida when the Bronx gets too messed up, right?) creates the mess too.

So we get back to the "Tragedy of the Commons". 

Platt (1973) conceptualized the commons dilemma as a type of social trap. Platt described three such categories of social traps, each of which is relevant to environmentally destructive behavior. The commons type of trap, or individual good-collective bad trap, involves a group competing for a valued resource, such that destructive behavior by one participant has minor impact on the whole, but if all engage in the same individual behavior, the impact on the commons is disastrous. The one-person trap, or self-trap, involves a disastrous consequence to one person. Typical of these traps is addiction to drugs or food The momentary pleasures of the present have disastrous consequences in the long run.  The third type is the missing hero trap. Whereas the commons trap and self-trap involve unfortunate actions that we take, the missing hero trap involves an action that we fail to take, such as refusing to help someone in need or failing to warn others of the toxicity of a substance with which they work. (p. 475).

We are all caught in such social traps, and the real problem for me is that we fall into these traps no matter what we think of the mythical place called "the environment".  Each of us really wants the best environment we can have around us, but is trapped into harming both our internal and external environments, and those of our loved ones and friends and neighbors, and even people and other creatures thousands of miles away, through the little actions we take.

Figuring out how to live without harming another is part of what this life journey is about, and one very good reason for getting an education.  We may not have all the answers yet, but one thing for me is certain, whether we live in Germany or the U.S. or anywhere else -- we can no longer be part of the missing hero trap.  There are some things we can all agree to do now to play nice and stop hurting others.  So let's start doing them.

Find the hero -- in YOU.