There are breakthrough moments along the way, laws enacted and whatnot, but big cultural shifts often happen incrementally, slowly enough that they seep into mainstream attitudes rather than changing them overnight. Looking back over the recent past, it’s clear that attitudes and behaviors that may have once seemed radical or impossible have become perfectly natural to us in a few decades’ time. Take our attitudes about smoking, seat belt use, and recycling. They’ve become second nature for us.
And these are among ten major, historical behavioral changes being studied at Lawrence Berkley National Laboratories to help understand how people might inch toward new attitudes about global warming—and in particular, energy conservation in their own lives. The study has been commissioned by the California Energy Commission to help the state reach its “climate challenge” goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent below 1990 levels.
Here’s a snapshot of the project and the reasoning behind a focused look at behavior change (as reported in Scientific American):
For starters, [LBNL energy technology scientist Jeffery] Greenblatt is examining the full mix of technical advances in both the supply and demand of energy that could possibly help meet the target, including more efficient electric motors, better insulation, intelligent controls for energy, as well as fluorescent and LED lighting. But even all of these technological advances may not get California to its mid-century mandate alone.
Individual choices could close the gap, according to historical data. Because smoking cessation data and seat belt—use statistics have around for decades, scientists have a good grasp on so-called adoption rates, or how much behavior change is ultimately possible. Historical data also explains how long it takes for change to stick. For example, tobacco smoking has been in a steady decline since the 1960s with all sorts of factors driving this trend—improved science and epidemiology, education through labeling and advertising campaigns, and greater public awareness of risks—all of which could be applied to behaviors that contribute to climate change.
So, what do we learn from seat belts, cigarettes, recycling and other major, culture-wide attitude and behavior shifts that we can apply to energy conservation to fight climate change? The results of the study aren’t out yet. But to me it seems clear that no one factor worked alone to bring about cultural change on any of these issues.
Take smoking as an example. Many reading these words are old enough to remember a time when people smoked everywhere—work, the grocery store, and movie theaters—but today, smoking is something most often done on a corner or in an alley. What happened? Science got stronger and clearer in its indictment of cigarette smoke as the cause of many serious diseases and other problems like fires, and that helped spur shifts in social norms, systems, and policies.
In turn, brave officials began passing local legislation to limit smoking. As those policy changes took hold, systems adapted, and norms followed. Today, if someone lit up a cigarette in a movie theater people would be outraged and would likely gang up on the smoker, demanding him to put it out (norms); they’d tell the management (systems); and ultimately, if they had to, they could call the cops (policy).
It’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation. The smoking shift is an example of how policy can influence norms, and as norms change they start to shift policy. Real, deep cultural shifts happen on all three fronts at once. When big policy changes fail—think cap and trade legislation—then work can continue to try to shift social norms or to encourage systems to change that pave the way for new behaviors.
As people got used to clean air in one part of their lives they naturally wanted it in other places. As cost savings are realized, good jobs are created, or barriers removed to energy conservation—systems changes—energy reform policies would start to seem like the natural thing to do. So they’d support policy makers who proposed to make that happen.
One obvious problem is that people seem to resist change. And if you’ve been paying any attention to attitudes and behaviors that could curb global warming, it may seem that needed changes in behavior will never come. But, ecologist and sociologist Thomas Dietz of Michigan State University is optimistic. “I often hear energy experts who have never studied behavior say that behavior doesn’t change,” Dietz told the Scientific American. “But if we learn anything from the last 50 years, it’s that behavior changes in huge ways.”
Fifty years!? This kind of shift may seem painfully slow. It was 1950, after all, when cigarettes were first linked to lung cancer. But, consider the moral dimension to these attitude shifts: most of us—large, small; shy or brave—are totally comfortable conducting what amount to citizens’ arrests when we get a whiff of cigarette smoke in an unauthorized location. Similarly, we stake our very identities on our feats of recycling. We look down our noses at neighbors, friends, or relatives who’d dare to toss number 2 plastics into the landfill.
What we tend to forget are the systems and policies that stand behind our sense of moral superiority in these situations (and the years of public education that got us to that place). The recycle bin didn’t just magically appear on the back porch, after all. Smoking in restaurants didn’t simply go out of fashion on its own.
One day we make wake up and find that energy conservation measures are second nature, that we see them as the perfectly natural and moral thing to do, and that climate attitudes have become the norm. The question is: what are the systems and policy solutions that will nudge us in that direction? What’s the recycle bin of energy conservation?
Hopefully the results of this study will give us some clues.
Thanks to my colleague Roger Valdez for input on this. Read his post on norms, systems, and policies and the Sustainability Gap.
“Brave officials began passing local legislation to limit smoking”?The “brave officials” were kicked in the butt by local advocates. it is the grassroots organizers that pushed the changes. For statewide regulation the most innovative (in California) was passed via an initiative organized by a coalition of various groups (not only antismoking but also hospitals, physicians who got some $ out of it)
Good points, Philippe.
Georgie Bright Kunkel
If we would spend as much money on doing something about taking back our democracy so we can control everything that we need for human welfare as we do in researching it all it might get done.We went to the moon and never stopped spending on outer spacewhile people were lying in the streets of every community to sleep. We research everything that can be envisioned to researchbut still citizens are suffering around the world except incountries like Norway that haven’t spent their money on warsand who have decided that everyone should chip in to alloweveryone to have their basic needs met.The people in this country work longer hours, max out their credit cards and are still escaping into technology because they are not fulfilled.Instead of texting each other let’s sit down together andhave a real conversation and share the goodies of life with everyone.
It would be great if we had 50 years to change behaviours around climate pollution. We don’t. Unless someone can buy off the laws of physics, we aren’t going to get to safety by the slow comfortable boat of incrementalism. The safe limit for CO2 is 350ppm according to the James Hansen at NASA. Above that level the Earth has been unable to keep ice at the poles. We lose the ice –> we lose the albedo –> we lose the basic oceanic conveyor belt that drives and stabilizes modern climate and keeps methane hydrates frozen on the continental shelves. We acidify the ocean, kill all the coral reefs, dry up the amazon, and shift every climate zone on the planet into something new. Oh wait, we are already seeing those things happen today.As most people know we are closer to 390ppm and accelerating upwards. Tiny, slow changes to behaviour at the margins is not going to save us this time.As James Hansen says we need to act now: “this is our last chance”…right now. Not 50 years from now.People would never think about chain smoking in a kindergarten classroom these days. But most people have no problem chain-burning fossil fuels and dumping literally tonnes of CO2 into those same kids’ futures. I don’t see any glimmer of people foregoing even the most hyper-climate-polluting luxuries like multi-tonne vacation flights, high-damage vehicle choices or burning fossil fuels like natural gas in their homes.The tragedy is that we have the solutions available and we still have the money and social structure that could pull it all off. But we instead waste the time with lullabies about slowly changing people’s attitudes at a rate they won’t have to notice.
I totally agree. Fifty years is way too long. What’s promising is that people can change. What’s not so good is that they won’t unless systems are in place to make them do it—and maybe even LIKE doing it. This is another case where we look to California to see what’s possible. The study was contracted because they want to figure out how to meet the goals they’ve set for the state—goals that aren’t 50 years out. I say: go for it. Let’s learn something from the other bad habits we’ve kicked. Then let’s fast track it.
I agree, Anna, that policies, systems and norms can change, and the rate of change is increasing. My favorite quote from James Baldwin is “one can lie about the body, but the body will not lie about iteself”. The same is true for the Earth as for the human body. As the effects of climate change become more obvious (Australian and Brazillian floods, etc) the need for change will become more obvious. That can fast-track new thinking and new options.Is it going to be soon enough? No one knows—I certainly can’t call it. But the surest way to NOT get there is to it is too late. Better to change systems, norms, and policies as quickly as possible on all levels that to be overwelmed by the magnitude of the problem.