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Sustainable Behavior Modification

Posted: 12:00PM August 4th, 2015 | Comments

While other countries tend to accept the idea that humanity is capable of altering the basic chemistry of the atmosphere, the United States is still hung up on the idea that we are too small for our environment to notice our presence or even be affected by it. This is complicated by the reduced recognition from Americans that evolution is a feasible explanation of the process that created the human species and the rest of the biotic world. Many Americans don't even perceive that they have the power to change their environment. So with this factor thrown in, how does one empower a population to act sustainably?


A recent National Public Radio (NPR) article says that while cultural background is an important precursor to figuring out if someone is able to comprehend evolution, their cognitive style is also an important proxy to determining if they believe in evolution. Individuals tend to believe that a pattern is something that is intended. So when they perceive symmetry they believe that something or someone has created it. Evolutionarily this could help us predict patturns in the weather that would keep us alive and now it helps investors detect trends in the market and figure out when the correct time to adopt is so that they thrive. The article states is that an intuitive cognition style will tend to mistakenly believe that there is an entity behind the trend or some kind of conspiracy. This leads to one of the arguments made by creationists, 'if these patterns exist than isn't there something behind them?' The fact is that the symmetry that we perceive are the product of a heuristic rather than the result of an algorithm. 


People who were raised to think that the 'conspirator' or 'creator' is a perfect all knowing entity that supersedes their existence are more likely to depend on heuristics that say that the Earth's resources are inexhaustible. This is because intuition asks why would an all knowing and perfect god create something that would hinder its own command to 'spread forth and multiply'? This leads to the belief that we are incapable of altering our environment because the world is too big for us. So this brings us to our problems: how do we convince people who don't believe there is a need to act sustainably that acting that way can help them and is necessary for their own livelihood? How do we convince people that sustainability is empowering? How do we empower people to be more sustainable?


The article from NPR mentions that credibility enhancing displays are used to convince people that creationism is more valid than evolution as an explanation for the origin of life. The same could be said about the carbon fuels industry, that has its own credibility enhancing displays to make sure that people think that global warming is not a problem that they can or should deal with. For example there is an advertisement campaign that calls the United States the world's next energy superpower, and they enforce the idea that fossil fuels continue to create opportunity while putting a positive spin on quickly consuming instead of conserving the resources left over from the Carboniferous period 359.2 to 299 million years ago. (UC-Berkley) This is disempowering in two ways: the first way is that the population thinks that its impact on the environment is negligible because empowerment comes directly from the realization of one's impact on an environment. (Sprietzer 1454) When people see that they have an impact, their sense of empowerment becomes stronger on all levels. The second way is that it puts us on a course to further the damage done to the environment which then hobbles us in the near future. 


The negative feedback loop benefits the bad actors that enforce this behavior regime. We hurt our environment and fossil fuel companies get more money from it. There are better ways to spend money than consistently on fossil fuel consumption. This is where we realize our place in evolution, an organism working against and with other organisms to survive, thus intuition now has a benefit in this area. After we perceive that if we slow down the depleetion of our natural resources we can provide resources to future generations and empower ourselves with a design for survival.


A psychological study by a university in Ontario designed a study in tandem with a water utility that helped consumers and the utility company save money. (McKenzie-Mohr 544-545) The study found that if someone set a positive example of conservation and environmentalism, like providing an on faucet prompt to consumers while riding a bike they were more likely to conserve water. The water utility found that from simply doing the study they were able to produce around a 1,181% return on their investment in savings. Households who received the information from an individual on a bike were 360% more likely to decrease lawn watering. This study empowered both the consumer and it empowered the utility because both parties saved money. The group who biked to present the information and the prompt were taken more seriously than the people who just provided information. Riding a bike was a credibility enhancing display.


In the workplace there is a slightly different approach. This requires that managers who want their employees to act more sustainably to foster a more connected or engaged culture within their workplace. This alone has multiple benefits for the company: there is increased camaraderie within the organization, and it allows people to learn and develop professionally in ways that can help achieve team objectives. It also provides an opportunity for management to show how personal sustainability can contribute to advanced personal and professional improvement. In the MPower Sustainability Session on energy efficiency I had the opportunity to sit with someone from the City of Monona. She found that after she exercised, she was more focussed and energetic and thus able to work more than when she did not. So she incorporated exercise into her routine for going to work.  This also saves her money at the pump while giving her more focus at work. 


The City of Portland, Maine implemented a law that stated trash to be collected must be placed in to blue City of Portland trash bags. (Portland, Maine) These bags were expensive and caused my cousin-in-law to produce less trash and use the recycling bin more often. An office could use this policy as well: require its employees to have their own trash can and bag within their personal office space and to buy bags from the company while instructing janitors to only collect trash in company issued bags. This would cost nothing to the company as their employees would be accountable for acquiring the bag. 


These credibility enhancing displays and narratives cost less than the elaborate commercials used by the oil industry to distract us from the problems that oil causes in our environment. They also work for companies that are attempting to create a valuable legacy of sustainability and quality jobs that investors will gravitate towards without causing major distress within the population and the workforce. Another benefit is that it keeps the oil industry's product around for future generations to use. While we get lean-the oil companies get lean too.


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