Field of Science

How Can We Change Behavior?

This one's been bugging me recently. Our current lifestyle is unsustainible (by "our" I mean the collective inhabitants of this planet.) Scientists know it, I know it, and I think most people I know would agree. We can't sustain our current way of life for more than about fifty years before environmental catastrophes force us into a very bad place.

Now, I believe people are inherently good. If a deity visited someone and said "you can personally save the entire planet, but you'll have to make some major lifestyle changes," I think anyone I know would say yes. Despite our differences, we all want the best for all of us.

However, it's not that simple. Even if anyone would sacrifice to individually save the world, that doesn't mean everyone will sacrifice to collectively save the world. Why not? Here are a few reasons:

  1. We don't know what to do. We know we should consume less, but does this mean we should bury ourselves and fertilize the soil? What does a sustainible lifestyle look like? We don't really know (though some have thought about it!)

  2. Culture. It's impossible not to at least partially assimilate the attitudes and lifestyles of those around you. Our imaginations are limited, so we're most likely to act similarly to those around us.

  3. Disconnect between action and consequence. This is a big one, in my opinion. Suppose that every time we drove a car, ate meat, or left a light switch on, we could see the environment deteriorate around us. Or conversely, suppose every time we recycled or biked to work, we could feel the earth gain vitality. If either of these things were true, I'm sure our problems would be gone in no time. But because environmental consequences occur over such large timespans and spatial scales, it's hard to see the effect of anything we do. Positive and negative feedback can change behavior, but only if that feedback is immediate and visible. It's much harder to worry about an incremental change fifty years from now.

  4. Many other reasons: hopelessness, inertia, not wanting to admit the scale of the problem, not wanting to clean a mess someone else created, etc.

I highlight the first three reasons because they are inherently complex systems issues. Because the physical and social issues around global warming are so complex, the best course of action is not clear (though some actions are clearly better than others.) Because we live in a complex system, our actions are influenced by those around us. And also because the physics of the environment is complex, the consequences of our actions are far removed from the actual action.

So what's to be done? Standard complex systems theory tells us that a complex system cannot be coerced. You cannot force everyone to live sustainibly unless you first convert the world into a totalitarian state, which is a terrible solution. To change the behavior of a complex system you must somehow change the rules of the game, creating incentives and disincentives that promote responsible action. This is essentially the theory behind the Kyoto protocol: don't force nations to change, but give them incentives to live cleaner.

Unfortunately, the carrots and sticks provided by the Kyoto protocol apply only at the nation level. Collective rewards and punishments are not very effective at changing behavior; feedback works best on the individual scale. Eventually we must find a way to trickle these carrots and sticks down to the state, local, and ultimately individual level, so that people are tangibly rewarded for living sustainibly and tangibly punished for not.

Is this possible? It may not be, but I think it's our only hope.


  1. Ben

    Great idea (the blog)...thanks for including me in your complex system.

    I think I am growing in agreement that at our current rate of consumption/expansion we are approaching serious natural global consequences. I also believe that these realities will make themselves so evident in the next few decades that even the skeptics will have to take notice. Hmmm...what sort of planet are we handing off to the next generation.

    I disagree with the statement "I believe people are inherently good." As a Christian, I would say that we are made in God's image (Imago Dei) but that we are also "fallen". Fallen from what is still a question for me. perhaps we are not fallen from "good" as much as we are fallen from innocence of the concepts of evil or good? The other Christian concept I bring to this discussion is the concept of a call to "stewardship". I believe that human beings are a special part of God creation, special in that we have been given the responsibility to be stewards.

    As stewards, we are called to be caretakers of creation. A steward does not claim ownership, but watches over thier charge for another. Who is that other? In some ways that "other" is both the rest of creation as well as future generations of creation. Once again, however, a fallen world distorts our understanding of how exactly this was meant to be played out. None-the-less, applying a redeemed notion of stewardship to our role on this planet is part of the solution in my opinion to the current problem. Whether we take on the role of steward voluntarily or by force is the question.

    I am reminded of the Steward of Gondor in Tolkien's trilogy. He was a steward who had grown accustomed to the false notion that he was the King?! His distortion of reality eventually led to his folly and the near distruction of the whole kingdom/city. Will this story be a metaphor for our groaning planet? Only time will tell.

    Thanks again for creating a space for complex conversation on important issues such as this.

    Grace & Peace in Jesus

  2. Thanks for the comments, Steve!

    There's certainly room for argument on whether people are inherently good, but I still maintain that, given the power to personally save all of humanity in exchange for some sacrifice, almost anyone would make that sacrifice. The trick is getting from there to the collective sacrifices we'll all need to make.

    I like your analogy of the steward who thought he was king! I think this may be a situation where such abstract questions as how we see our role and purpose in life end up having very tangible consequences. To bring it back to Ishmael, the story we tell about ourselves will end up at its logical conclusion.

    (To everyone else: Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn, is required reading for those who haven't read it.)

    You're welcome, and I look forward to many interesting discussions.

  3. I think this falls under your 4th point, but there is also the Meat Is Tasty problem: what parts of a sustainable culture we can easily imagine (say, people stop eating meat and use public transportation or bike/walk to get places) are often clearly distasteful to a lot of people. It's easier to bury our heads in the sand, and then drive half an hour to go out for a nice big steak.

  4. Hey Ben,

    I finally got around to going through your first posts--looks like this will be a very interesting blog!

    On the inherent goodness of people: I think that I, along with Steve, may disagree with that as well...but in a more specific way than him, maybe.

    I think that people will generally do what they think is "right." At times, this can be described as "good." Sometimes, though...not so much. But I would argue that even those who commit the worst acts are doing what they think is right--it's just an incredibly relative and subjective notion.

    For example, profits for a CEO directly benefit himself, his family, and his company--which he would certainly see as being right things, even if those profits are at the expense of countless others and the environment.

    So I guess I just wanted to briefly throw that out there: the difference between right and good. May be worth thinking about in the future...

  5. It's certainly true that people sometimes act in a way that they know will hurt others (or the environment) just for personal comfort or gain. I'm sure we've all done this at some point.

    But consider, what if some entity offered you a chance to solve all of the world's problems and make everyone happy permanently, in exchange for, say, your left arm. Do you know anyone who would refuse?

  6. Hmm...true, I don't know anyone who would refuse that--although it is an entirely imaginary example--but I certainly can envision someone who might just say, "to hell with THAT," and he may make his refusal with only positive repercussions (i.e. keeping his arm), feeling no negative ones for the rest of his life.

    Certainly this is not "good," but can it be argued that it is "right" for him?

    And as an aside, if no one knew that he were given this offer, would it make him less likely to surrender his arm?

    I suppose that my point is to guide thought on this topic towards the notion that people are inherently self-interested, and not good. Sometimes this leads to altruistic deeds, but sometimes it does not.

    And by that, I mean...I'm trying to avoid absolutism.


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