Sunday, August 12, 2007

Environmentalism Strategy Memo Part II

Click here for Part I.

The recycling issue is probably a much bigger example in the same category. There have been a lot of studies that suggest recycling, particularly curbside recycling, uses more energy than it saves. However, we still do it. Why? Because about 20 years ago, the fiction began to spread that we were running out of landfill space.

What really happened is that local landfills were filling up, and in NIMBY fashion, localities didn't want to create new ones. So yes, we were running out of landfill space, but only from a political, not a physical, perspective. However, a confluence of interests blew this up into a bona-fide artifact of conventional wisdom.

For waste-disposal companies that both delivered services and owned existing landfills, this could be a bonanza. It will be much easier to raise prices if consumers are well aware of an underlying cause for higher prices and are actually primed to expect price rises. That's pretty much what happened with waste-disposal costs, since we were, after all, running out of landfill space.

For well-meaning but under-informed environmentalists, this was a clear, visible, tangible easy cause.

For consumers, same thing--tangible way to do environmental good without much pain or need to adapt habits.

I believe there is a small, fourth category of environmental-movement types, who must have been well-informed enough to speak to the limitations of the benefits to be derived from recycling. However, from a strategic perspective, anything that raises awareness and makes it less convenient to consume should be a good thing. So I hypothesize that these "smarter" enviros would also have had this reason of their own to also jump on the recycling bandwagon.

There are two major flaws in that line of reasoning, though. One, I think people have a rather natural weakness to be drawn to "cheap grace". This means that successfully making the first, easy step of recycling would be more likely to motivate them to "quit while they are ahead", than it would encourage them to delve deeper into examining how they might further modify their behavior to benefit the environment. Two, even well-meaning people will have a very limited attention span for evaluating any given topic that they don't find intrinsically interesting; for better or worse, for most people, any topic that includes lots of details, the need to develop and maintain a complex mental model, and the need for sustained, subtle analytical thinking fits that category of "not interesting". So if you are going to try to get people's attention and ask them to make a change, you may want to spend your "attention capital" wisely--ask right away for a material change that will make a difference, not a relatively meaningless, confidence-building step.

So, to summarize, the focus on recycling let individuals feel good that they were "doing their part to save the earth", when they really weren't doing anything helpful, and furthermore, it foreclosed any subsequent claim on getting their attention to consider more meaningful changes.


Next in Part III: my best idea for a tactic that could maybe ultimately drive some significant behavior change.

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