“There would have been no survivors (1)”—the folly of Inverted Quarantine (and a rationale for the use of persuasive technology)

You see the faded yellow and black Fallout Shelter signs in older buildings all the time—harking back to an era where destruction by the Red Menace was only a few hours away. The bad news was that cowering in the basement wasn’t going to help much, building a shelter in your basement or backyard wasn’t going to be much better, and even the hardened redoubts the government constructed were a waste of taxpayer dollars, as there wouldn’t be much of a world left to emerge from your bunker to. Fortunately, heads were cool enough even in the hottest moments, the posturing of Mutual Assured Destruction (which effective civil defense protections would have in theory defeated) kept the balance of fear between NATO and the Warsaw Pact and prevented any major action, and accidents didn’t kill us all (although there were several disturbing close calls, thank you Stanislav Petrov).

Taking this out of the metaphors, the environmental situation we are in is somewhat analogous. You can buy organic food, drink bottled water (which substitutes compounds leached from the plastic bottles for materials from the pipes), and buy an air filter for your bedroom. The improvement in your life quality comes at the expense of the total well-being of humanity (which decreases your life quality)—so it doesn’t really work out. To reverse WOPR’s famous statement from War Games, the only winning move is to play.

So if the historical record of protecting ourselves from threats is rather poor—people who can move to the suburbs and exurbs do, leaving the ‘dangerous classes’ to occupy the cities (a semi-successful example of inverted quarantine), and people freak out about nuclear war and for the most part do nothing but buy a bunch of ominous looking signs, what to do?

For most people, most of the time, environmental concerns are not the primary issue in their minds. People want their clothes clean, their house warm, to get to work on time. They are more concerned about the electric bill due on the 1st of the month and what they’re going to be doing Friday night to worry about the collapse of the Bluefin tuna population. They also want the future to be there (which is generally assumed as there has never been a true existential crisis for humanity). Of course, the amount an individual of family weights environmental issues versus other factors is dependent on their means, their education, and life circumstances.

With the exception of the Millenialists who are actively trying to end the world to the left of the graph and the most strident environmentalists to the far right of the graph, ‘normal people’ are presumably normally distributed in their behavior. So, if most people don’t care enough to substantially reduce impact, beyond buying Method Soap (which I recommend) or organic apples—how are we going to avoid the Collapse Jared Diamond predicts in his book of the same title (which we’re on the way to realizing while everyone is blithely ignoring the fact that the sky is falling)?

From this, either people can be motivated to care, and then be given the tools to do something about it, which is difficult to effect; or behaviors can change without conscious thought—which may be an easier route. A large proportion of the people in America don’t believe that the environmental quality is an issue to worry about, what can be done to change behavior without changing their beliefs first?

Persuasive technology applied to the design of public-facing systems can lower the barrier to action (see BJ Fogg’s Behavior Model)—it doesn’t remove the requirement for motivation, but designing to encourage specific outcomes (e.g. choosing cold water for washing clothes, requiring action to activate the heated dry function on the dishwasher, or promoting fruit and vegetables through the design or packing of the refrigerator) may make changes occur without arousing resistance.

A group of thin slices can be just as big in aggregate as a large chunk, so is it really necessary to make everyone freak out and hope for change, instead of going for the things which can happen one at a time and now? It’s not so hard to make a lot of small changes in your life—cold water laundry wash, dialing back the air conditioning and heat a few degrees, taking a Navy Shower (really easy with the proper showerhead). So, there’s nothing wrong with small changes first – and making small behavior changes may cause subsequent, larger behavior and belief changes as a result. In the psychology literature it is documented that beliefs change as a result of behavior:

Cognitive dissonance describes a broad range of phenomena, where there is a disparity between actions and one’s beliefs related to those actions. People change their beliefs relative to their behavior: during the Korean War, UN POW’s were ‘mildly’ coerced into making pro-communist/pro-DPRK/pro-Chinese statements with offers of extra food, cigarettes, or clothing—and subsequently changed their beliefs to be congruent with the statements they had made. A landmark 1959 study by Festinger and Carlsmith found that subjects who were given only $1 (approximately $8 in 2011 dollars) as compensation for a terribly boring experiment changed their opinions of how unpleasant it was after lying to a fellow subject (actually a confederate), compared to other subjects paid $20 (approximately $150 in 2011 dollars) for lying about how boring it was. This effect can be exploited for environmental benefit, possibly changing the beliefs of recalcitrant populations. While it would be questionably ethical to ‘force’ people to make counter-attitudinal statements, people have no trouble cutting their bills. The Climate and Energy Project has been using patriotic and economic arguments to promote conscious behavior changes which reduce environmental impact, sidestepping the issues of whether climate change is anthropogenic or worth worrying about (it is entirely rational to want a lower electricity bill). Whether this puts a crack in the metaphorical dike remains to be seen—I doubt that changing to CFLs and turning down the thermostat will get people on the road to ecosocialist atheism, but it probably will put people on the path to other changes, as a result of the ‘foot in the door‘ phenomena, where acceding to a small request makes one more likely to acquiesce to a subsequent larger request. Freedman and Fraser’s 1966 study found startling results, as have subsequent experiments, including some related to sustainability: see Commitment and Energy Conservation, by Pallak, Cook, and Sullivan, 1980. Getting people to do something small is likely to reduce defenses to larger requests, so there is hope in the small changes.

see origin of the quote in the title: 5th Gear crash test at 120mi/hr closure


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