I like to think I control my own decisions. I confirm this control while intensely comparing nutrition labels on the seemingly endless variety of breakfast cereals at the grocery store (note, this scenario excludes the prior decisions concerning which grocery store to go to, how to get there, and what time to go). I am a conscientious consumer, and no marketing or product placement legerdemain can fool me!
And then I read Richard Thaler and Cass Sustein’s book, Nudge. Nudges. Those little subconscious guides on the trail of daily life. Not only am I often not in control of my own decisions, but also some whip-smart people design decision-making frameworks specifically to control my decisions—surely A. Huxley forewarned us of such mind control.
Well, I can’t reach those boxes down at the bottom of the rack. And I don’t recognize the brands on those other ones. So I choose the cereal at eye level with the prettiest box from a company I recognize.
Funny, this one happens to be the most expensive one.
Oh well, I still chose the one I wanted, right? I’m not even sure anymore. Worse, I’m not even sure it matters if it is the one I wanted. In many ways, I’m just happy to have made a decision before the store closed.
So what do nudges have to do with climate change? Nudges can have a positive impact on climate change mitigation strategies. Climate change is an abstract concept. Our blip-on-the-geologic-timeline lifespan is not long enough for us to comprehend the problems we are causing.
Furthermore, unlike terrorism for example, climate change lacks specific, extraordinary events that can drive the public toward palliative policies.
Additionally, climate change is unique in the sense that local causes of global climate change do not present local effects. For example, the projected temperature increases in the Puget Sound region are lower than the rest of the contiguous US. This is not because Seattle is one of the “greenest” cities in the country (although it certainly doesn’t hurt). Rather, it is because of natural temperature gradients and ocean currents and other metrological and geological complexities outside of our control.
Abstraction, non-events, and indirect consequences? Seems primed for nudge theory. When an airport etches small flies on the insides of urinals, I don’t need to know why or understand its effects. All I know is that I need to keep aiming at that darn thing!
If climate change mitigation requires a fundamental change in behavior, what better way to change behavior than to do so subconsciously?