The Tyee is running an interview with University of British Columbia professor and sustainability guru John Robinson, with some sage advice on how to coax us out of cars:

We should stop guilt-tripping people, stop telling them that they are putting three tons of carbon a month into the air with their cars when they live 40 kilometers from work and there is no transit. That actually makes them more resistant to change. The way you get behaviour change is through integrated programs aimed at behaviour, not just people’s heads. There is a lot of work in health promotion—in anti-obesity campaigns and breast-cancer screening and anti-smoking campaigns—that shows the way to much successful behaviour-modification programs. We should learn from those.” [Emphasis added.]

That seems just about right to me. Guilt motivates some people, I suppose. But not many. And guilt trips are especially counterproductive when people feel like they don’t have any reasonable, low-guilt options. Rather than clamoring for better options, many people just give up, and come to think of “guilty behavior” as inevitable, perhaps even desirable—and, paradoxically, the result of personal choice, rather than a system that constrains choice.

Ultimately, guilt isn’t motivating; it’s dispiriting.

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  • This brings up a more general worry of mine: that “green consumerism”–broadly speaking, the idea that responsible lifestyle choices can create a more sustainable world—misses the point.

    You see, as individuals, we often don’t have many reasonable, environmentally-friendly options available to us. I’d like to buy a hybrid car, for example; but the Prius comes loaded with more extras than I’d like to pay for, so it’s uneconomical for my family’s driving habits.

    In the same vein, lots of people would like to live closer to their jobs, in neighborhoods with great transit service or where stores and services are a short drive away. But housing in those sorts of neighborhoods is pricey, since there’s a lot of demand and not much supply—in part because of subtle disincentives to compact development that are embedded in tax and zoning codes. So many people are forced to settle for less expensive housing in car-oriented neighborhoods.

    So there are two instances—cars and houses, which together are responsible for a large share of our environmental impact—where the range of reasonable choices is constrained by forces outside any individual’s control. Even people who do respond to guilt trips—people who’d opt for the greenest lifestyle that’s within reasonable reach—don’t have a lot of good choices available to them.

    I’m not saying that promoting green lifestyle choices is a waste of time. Far from it. But far, far more important is giving people—not just green consumers, but everyone—a wider range of environmentally friendly choices, and the incentives to make the right choices.

    As Professor Robinson points out, we have a lot to learn from the field of public health in this regard. Lecturing smokers on the dangers of smoking only did so much. But systemic changes—higher cigarette taxes, new medical treatments, and the like—were far more effective. Where guilt had failed, guilt-free incentives did the trick.