Why Environmentalists Should Try to Change Laws, Not People

How do you get people in a democratic society to change their way of life? The theme has come up a lot at gatherings of climate scientists and environmentalists I've attended, where the answers fall on a continuum between "persuade them" and "force them." That's not a distinction between good guys and bad. Persuasion isn't inherently democratic, because it can be based on lies and distortions. Mandates aren't inherently tyrannical, if they're enacted by fairly-elected legislatures.

What really separates these two philosophies is the place they want to see change: Is it within people, or among people? Do you want people to make the better turns on the road of life, or wall off the bad ones so that they can't?

One point in favor of individual change is that it sounds kinder and more democratic: around the world today, for example, millions of people lucky enough to have electricity have been unplugging from the grid for "Earth Hour," to illustrate the "small changes from all of us at home" that, writes the World Wildlife Fund's David Nussbaum will be required to avert catastrophic climate change. Candlelit dinners and family storytelling have a warm aura not found in rulebooks, courtrooms, and jail cells.

On the other hand, as a paper in this month's Journal of Personality and Social Psychology illustrates, there's a drawback to personal behavior as a tool of social change: The choices people make in their personal lives are never just about the objects or actions in play. They're also about how we see ourselves, and how we imagine others see us. Like a medieval allegory, where the unicorn is both a unicorn and a symbol of Devotion, a decision to buy an iPhone is a double story: The phone is a phone, and also a symbol of your place in society. The same goes for choices in beer, shoes, cars, hobbies and habits—including whether to participate in "Earth Hour."

Allegory is hard to sell to modern readers. We want the unicorn to be all unicorny, and not do strange things that are required because he is also a symbol of Devotion. Similarly, environmentalists like to believe that "green" behavior is about an enlightened appreciation of the facts; they hate to think that "green" deeds can be driven by that other level of consciousness, where they represent status and self-image. And those anxieties are well-founded. If "green" choices are motivated by self-image and social emotions, that means those decisions can't be relied upon. "Green," though always good for the planet, will eventually no longer represent social "cool."

The Journal paper shows that this problem is real. The authors—Vladas Griskevicius, Joshua M. Tybur, and Bram Van den Bergh— asked 168 college students to pick between a range of products, some of which were noticeably "greener" than others. Before they did so, though, the students were divided into groups. One read a story that focussed their attention on matters of social status.

The students who'd been primed to think about status were far more likely to choose the eco-friendly products. And, as this account points out, a later experiment showed that the status-aware students were less likely to prefer green if they were shopping online (where no one could see them) than in a brick-and-mortar store. The paper also notes that, among the status-aware students, the desirability of green products dropped if those products weren't more expensive than alternatives.(The full paper, in pdf form, is here.)

There's a practical conclusion to be drawn from this: We shouldn't necessarily expect eco-friendly products to take off once they become less expensive and more common. For those for whom eco-awareness is a badge of elite status, the appearance of green bulbs at Wal-Mart makes those bulbs less desirable.

But I think the deeper lesson is this: we can't and shouldn't expect environmental change to take place within people's minds and hearts. People's minds and hearts aren't that reliable, and their motivations are primarily those that evolution bequeathed us: Impressing ourselves, and other people, with representations of identity. The allegorical nature of personal choice is inescapable.

Granted, all democracies depend on a mix of individual motivation and social rules (we pay taxes both because it is the law and because we want to feel virtuous). So this is not an either/or choice. But I think our knowledge of the human mind is sound enough, now, to tell environmentalists that they're better off trying to change laws rather than people. "Earth Hour" is "in" this year. By 2013, it may be "out." But a law making it impossible to buy gadgets that run on standby mode? That's something you can count on.

​There are two kinds of failure – but only one is honorable

Malcolm Gladwell teaches "Get over yourself and get to work" for Big Think Edge.

Big Think Edge
  • Learn to recognize failure and know the big difference between panicking and choking.
  • At Big Think Edge, Malcolm Gladwell teaches how to check your inner critic and get clear on what failure is.
  • Subscribe to Big Think Edge before we launch on March 30 to get 20% off monthly and annual memberships.
Keep reading Show less

Why the ocean you know and love won’t exist in 50 years

Can sensitive coral reefs survive another human generation?

  • Coral reefs may not be able to survive another human decade because of the environmental stress we have placed on them, says author David Wallace-Wells. He posits that without meaningful changes to policies, the trend of them dying out, even in light of recent advances, will continue.
  • The World Wildlife Fund says that 60 percent of all vertebrate mammals have died since just 1970. On top of this, recent studies suggest that insect populations may have fallen by as much as 75 percent over the last few decades.
  • If it were not for our oceans, the planet would probably be already several degrees warmer than it is today due to the emissions we've expelled into the atmosphere.
Keep reading Show less

Vikings unwittingly made their swords stronger by trying to imbue them with spirits

They didn't know it, but the rituals of Iron Age Scandinavians turned their iron into steel.

Culture & Religion
  • Iron Age Scandinavians only had access to poor quality iron, which put them at a tactical disadvantage against their neighbors.
  • To strengthen their swords, smiths used the bones of their dead ancestors and animals, hoping to transfer the spirit into their blades.
  • They couldn't have known that in so doing, they actually were forging a rudimentary form of steel.
Keep reading Show less

Health care: Information tech must catch up to medical marvels

Michael Dowling, Northwell Health's CEO, believes we're entering the age of smart medicine.

Photo: Tom Werner / Getty Images
Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • The United States health care system has much room for improvement, and big tech may be laying the foundation for those improvements.
  • Technological progress in medicine is coming from two fronts: medical technology and information technology.
  • As information technology develops, patients will become active participants in their health care, and value-based care may become a reality.
Keep reading Show less