Four “unwieldy truths” about getting to sustainable behavior


Wes Schultz is a professor at California State University – San Marcos, and is one of the leading American researcher around community-based social marketing, in an article he has prepared for Conservation Biology (to be published in 2012), that he shared with me, he hits home what I consider are the most powerful and useful takeaways from this field so far.

Wes Schultz clearly defines the problem of our deteriorating environmental conditions to be human-caused, and therefore the solution must also come from humans, namely through changing behavior.  This is characteristic of what other social fields call “wicked problems” or “adaptive problems”.  If we were rational, long-term thinking creatures, we wouldn’t have this problem.  But the challenge is that we are human, and we are much more than economic or rational beings.

Four research findings that illustrate the challenges of changing behavior, I call them the “unwieldy truths” because they’re big challenges, and they need to held together:

  1. Education does not typically result in increases in conservation behavior;
  2. Human thinking is biased and promotes short-sighted responses to environmental threats;
  3. Individuals generally perceive themselves as separate from nature; and
  4. Social norms guide behavior.

And like Kathy Kuntz has caught on to and has decided to address, social norms are self perpetuating.  If we perceive that the norm is that other people aren’t doing enough, we send messages that “lament the frequency…of undesirable behavior,” making conservation action only seem more outside of the norm.  We need to change our message.

I also appreciate Schultz’s reminder that mass media marketing can only play a limited role in changing behavior.  Unlike selling a product, behavior change “involves a level of cost or sacrifice to the individual” (e.g. reducing consumption, breaking a habit) and this cannot be achieved by simply buying something.

He also includes a smart caution against broad pleas (e.g. “Save the planet!” and “Protect the environment”).  These slogans, as well as laundry lists (see here and here) of things to change, often leave individuals feeling under- or over-armed with information and without the motivation and capability to complete a single, achievable, simple action.

As I explore this field of energy-efficient and sustainable behavior change, I am learning the very large role that behavior must and will play in the future of our sustainable endeavors.  But I am also coming to realize what an enormous task this really is — behavior change will require thoughtful and pervasive changes in message; technological innovation to move society to do the right thing because its easy and attractive; a culture of social capital and cohesiveness that can self-determine and proclaim that “we do things differently”; and a political and financial environment that is willing to invest in the work we know is right and effective, even if it’s not always easy to quantify. 

In terms of the work I and doing for my fellowship, I really feel I am focusing on the 4th point, it’s an entry point.  If I can provide some effective resources to help communities succeed at their energy and sustainability goals, their work can be recognized and publicized as the opposing message that “Everyone is doing more to save energy.”  

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