Social Norms, Climate Change, and the Energy Crisis We Face

This post is Robert Cialdini's testimony to the Subcommittee on Research and Science Education, House Committee on Science and Technology, on the topic of "The Contribution of the Social Sciences to the Energy Challenge," September 25, 2007. A link to the committee's session (which involved other prominent social scientists such as Dr. Robert Bordley, John "Skip" A. Laitner, Dr. Jerry Ellig, and Dr. Duane Wegener) can be found here.

I bring this to you for many reasons, but most of all to generate a discussion of extant social norms in the social scientific realm with regard to energy and environment as well as to generate a discussion about the state of our study of those norms. Plus, I just think loads of Bob Cialdini, who is Regents’ Professor of Psychology and Marketing at Arizona State University; Cialdini has written many important tomes on applied psychology, and I suggest you read as many of them as you can.

Social norms, which refer to what most people do (descriptive social norms) and what most people approve (injunctive social norms), are remarkably powerful in directing human action. Social science research has uncovered the most successful ways to incorporate norms into messages designed to produce socially desirable conduct.

Studies in several environmental contexts (e.g., home energy conservation, household recycling, hotel conservation efforts) show that (1) energy users severely underestimate the role of social norms in guiding their energy usage, (2) communications that employ social norm-based appeals for pro-environmental behavior are superior to those that employ traditional persuasive appeals, and (3) even though these highly effective social norm-based appeals are nearly costless—requiring no large technological fixes, tax incentives, or regulatory changes—they are rarely (and sometimes mistakenly) delivered.

Testimony to the Subcommittee on Research and Science Education, House Committee on Science and Technology. At the hearing on: The Contribution of the Social Sciences to the Energy Challenge, September 25, 2007.

Robert B. Cialdini, Regents’ Professor of Psychology and Marketing, Arizona State University

Chairman Baird, Ranking Member Ehlers, and Members of the Subcommittee, it is my pleasure to be here today to testify on the Contribution of the Social Sciences to the Energy Challenge. I believe that the social and behavioral sciences do indeed hold tremendous potential to influence individual and collective behaviors effecting energy conservation, providing that we understand how to craft the message.

Here’s why. It is standard practice when advocating for action among policymakers (e.g., legislative or other governmental officials) to emphasize the breadth of a problem. And, that makes sense because policymakers can be expected to provide additional resources or regulations to address those abuses that appear to them most widespread. However, a different—and even opposite—logic may apply when communicating with the public about a problem. To understand that logic, consider the following incident.

Not long ago, a graduate student of mine visited the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona with his fiancée—a woman he described as the most honest person he’d ever known, someone who had never taken a paperclip or rubber band without returning it. They quickly encountered a park sign warning visitors against stealing petrified wood, “OUR HERITAGE IS BEING VANDALIZED BY THE THEFT OF 14 TONS OF WOOD EVERY YEAR.” While still reading the sign, he was shocked to hear his fiancée whisper, “We’d better get ours now.”

What could have spurred this wholly law-abiding young woman to want to become a thief and to deplete a national treasure in the process? I believe it has to do with a mistake that park officials made when creating that sign. They tried to alert visitors to the park’s theft problem by telling them that many other visitors were thieves. In so doing, they stimulated the behavior they had hoped to suppress by making it appear commonplace—when, in fact, less than 3% of the park’s millions of visitors have ever taken a piece of wood.

Park officials are far from alone in this kind of error. Those responsible for developing and enforcing public policy blunder into it all the time. Teenage suicide prevention programs inform students of the alarming number of adolescent suicides and, research shows, cause participants to become more likely to see suicide as a possible solution to their problems. When publicizing cases of school violence, news outlets assemble accounts of incident after incident and, in the process, spawn the next one. During prominently announced crackdowns on the problem, government officials decry the frequency of tax evasion and, as demonstrated by one follow-up study, increase tax cheating the next year (Kahan, 1997). Although their claims may be both true and well-intentioned, the creators of these information campaigns have overlooked something basic about the communication process: Within the lament “Look at all the people who are doing this undesirable thing” lurks the powerful and undercutting message “Look at all the people who are doing it.” And, one of the fundamental lessons of human psychology is that people follow the crowd. I am concerned that this point is being missed in our attempts to communicate the importance of environmental protection and energy conservation within our communities.

I think there is a better way to proceed. We need be diligent in making clear to the public that many unwelcome actions are performed by a small minority of the population. For instance, let’s consider the case of littering. Few citizens litter with any frequency; most take care to preserve the environment. The key to an enlightened public policy approach to litter is to deliver the message that even one abandoned newspaper can spread to despoil a pristine park or beach, that even one cigarette butt flipped from a car can ignite a devastating fire, that even one carelessly discarded plastic container can endanger wildlife, and, most important, that even one piece of litter can begin an accumulation that creates the mistaken—but contagious—impression that we all litter. It’s not even remotely true that we are a nation of despoilers, and we shouldn’t be misled into believing that it is. Instead, armed with the knowledge that, as a citizenry, we do care about our environment, we should focus on marginalizing the few who don’t care.

Would such an approach work in other environmental arenas? My colleagues and I at Arizona State University have done research indicating that it well might. At the Petrified Forest, we erected a pair of signs in different areas. The first urged visitors not to take wood and depicted a scene showing three thieves in action. After passing that sign, visitors became over twice as likely to steal than before! Our other sign also urged visitors not to take wood, but it depicted a lone thief. Visitors who passed it became nearly half as likely to steal than before (Cialdini, 2003). I believe that this lesson applies to other forms of environmental offenses such as energy wastage. The secret is to avoid validating the deviant actions of a small minority of wrongdoers by making them appear the rule rather than the exception. Otherwise, we assure that a few rotten apples will spoil the barrel.

In addition, we should be sure to raise the profile of the majority that does act pro-environmentally, because that spurs others to follow suit. For instance, with our students, my fellow environmental researcher, Wes Schultz of California State University-San Marcos, and I obtained support from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to study how descriptive social norms (the perception of what most people do in a situation) can influence energy conservation decisions. Our survey of nearly 2,500 Californians showed that those who thought their neighbors were conserving were more likely to conserve themselves. But, at the same time, almost all of the survey respondents underestimated the conservation efforts of their neighbors. In a follow-up study, we placed door hangers on the doors of San Diego-area residents once a week for a month. The door hangers carried one of four messages, informing residents that (1) they could save money by conserving energy, or (2) they could save the earth’s resources by conserving energy, or (3) they could be socially responsible citizens by conserving energy, or (4) the majority of their neighbors tried regularly to conserve energy—information we had learned from a prior survey. We also include a control group of residents in the study whose door hanger simply encouraged energy conservation but provided no rationale. Even though our prior survey indicated that residents felt that they would be least influenced by information regarding their neighbors’ energy usage, this was the only type of door hanger information that led to significantly decreased energy consumption, almost 2 kWh/day (Nolan, Schultz, Cialdini, Goldstein, & Griskevicius, 2007). This suggests a clear way to increase conservation activity—by trumpeting the true levels of conservation that are going unrecognized.

To investigate this idea, we examined resource conservation choices in upscale hotel rooms, where guests often encounter a card asking them to reuse their towels. As anyone who travels frequently knows, this card may urge the action in various ways. Sometimes it requests compliance for the sake of the environment; sometimes it does so for the sake of future generations; and sometimes it exhorts guests to cooperate with the hotel in order to save resources. What the card never says, however, is that (according to data from the Project Planet Corporation that manufactures the cards) the majority of guests do reuse their towels when given the opportunity. We suspected that this omission was costing the hotels—and the environment—plenty.

Here’s how we tested our suspicion. With the collaboration of the management of an upscale hotel in the Phoenix area, we put one of four different cards in its guestrooms. One of the cards stated “HELP SAVE THE ENVIRONMENT,” which was followed by information stressing respect for nature. A different card stated “HELP SAVE RESOURCES FOR FUTURE GENERATIONS,” which was followed by information stressing the importance of saving energy for the future. A third type of card stated “PARTNER WITH US TO HELP SAVE THE ENVIRONMENT,” which was followed by information urging guests to cooperate with the hotel in preserving the environment. A final type of card stated “JOIN YOUR FELLOW CITIZENS IN HELPING TO SAVE THE ENVIRONMENT,” which was followed by information that the majority of hotel guests do reuse their towels when asked. The outcome? Compared to the first three messages, the final (social norm) message increased towel reuse by an average of 34% (Goldstein, Cialdini, & Griskevicius, 2007).

Two things are noteworthy about the results of the hotel study. First, the message that generated the most participation in the hotel’s towel recycling program was the one that no hotel (to our knowledge) has ever used. Apparently, this simple but effective appeal didn’t emerge from a history of trial and error to become a hotel “best practice.” Instead, it emerged from a scientifically-based understanding of human psychology. This points out the need to call on social scientific research in a systematic fashion to help advance sound environmental policy. For instance, in case of hotel conservation programs, the average 150-room hotel would save 72,000 gallons of water, 39 barrels of oil, and would obviate the release 480 gallons of detergent into the environment in the course of a year if guests complied with the requests.

The second notable aspect of the hotel study was that the significant increase in program participation was nearly costless. In most cases, for an organization to boost effectiveness by 34%, some expensive steps have to be taken; typically, organizational structure, focus, or personnel must be changed. In this instance, however, none of that was necessary. Rather, what was required was a presentation of the facts about the preferred behavior of the majority.


In sum, when communicating with the public, it is important to avoid trying to reduce the incidence of a damaging problem by describing it as regrettably frequent. Such an approach, while understandable, runs counter to the findings of social science regarding the contagiousness of social behavior, even socially harmful behavior. Moreover, often, the problem under consideration is not widespread at all. It only comes to seem that way by virtue of a vivid and impassioned presentation of its dangers. Instead, it would be better to honestly inform our audience of the environmental peril resulting from even a small amount of the undesirable conduct. Furthermore, when most people are behaving responsibly toward the environment, we’d be less than responsible ourselves if we failed to publicize that fact, as the social science evidence is plain that the information will serve both to validate and stimulate the desired action.


Cialdini, R. B. (2003). Crafting normative messages to protect the environment. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 12, 105-109.

Goldstein, N., Cialdini, R. B., & Griskevicius, V. (2006). A room with a viewpoint: Using norm-based appeals to motivate conservation behaviors in a hotel setting. Manuscript currently under review.

Kahan, D. (1997). Social influence, social meaning, and deterrence. Virginia Law Review, 83, 349-395.

Nolan, J. M.. Schultz, P. W., Cialdini, R. B., Goldstein, N. J., & Griskevicius, V. (2007). Normative influence is underdetected. Manuscript currently under review.

Biography of
Robert B. Cialdini, Ph. D.
Robert B. Cialdini is Regents’ Professor of Psychology and Marketing at Arizona State University, where he has also been named W. P. Carey Distinguished Professor of Marketing. He has taught at Stanford University and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. He has been elected president of the Society of Personality and Social Psychology. He is the recipient of the Distinguished Scientific Achievement Award of the Society for Consumer Psychology, the Donald T. Campbell Award for Distinguished Contributions to Social Psychology, and the (inaugural) Peitho Award for Distinguished Contributions to the Science of Social Influence.
Professor Cialdini’s book Influence: Science and Practice, which was the result of a three-year program of study into the reasons that people comply with requests in everyday settings, has sold over a million copies while appearing in numerous editions and twenty-two languages.

The two examples illustrated by Prof Cialdini (again) show the importance of relative social comparisons as opposed to absolute -this is a trait grounded in evolutionary psychology. We care about how we keep up (or don't) with the Joneses, and any cues given via marketing or the environment on how we 'compare' have great potential to tweak our behaviour.

Taking nothing away from the great research of Prof Cialdini, I believe that conventional sociology, psychology, etc. have become quite good at sussing out our proximate behaviours, but only when looked through an evolutionary lens can we see the ultimate reasons underlying our behavioural choices. The vast majority of our history was in tribal groups of 100 or so members and the social rules necessary to survive and advance within these settings are still very actively with us today. Psychology is a subset of biology - accepting and integrating this fact will help synthesize the best ways to 'market' changing energy behaviour.

I agree, but don’t think there’s need to be quite so reductionist. The task is to link these proximate and ultimate factors, figuring ways to make the proximate norms driving status-driven behaviors less materially consumptive. I suspect these traits will/can develop locally, indeed already are, but these local adaptations need to be shielded off from TV and other corporate/large-scale interests promoting consumption - with slick, effective persuasion tools behind them. Many elements for locally less consumptive normative behavior are already at play – “unplug your TV”, “walk more for health”, etc. But how to make and keep them normative?

I actually don't think of it as reductionist but do agree the linkages are the most important.

FYI -I am in your lovely (but rainy) state. Found lots of lobster mushrooms and chicken of woods yesterday but the rain is blowing horizontal on the coast today so its cozy by the fire catching up on reading...I too Love Oregon.

Hi Nate,

Just an anecdote: Sometime when I have time (which "peak oil" doesn't seem to provide us with) - I could share w. you some work and questions I had re: my brief foray into ev psych. There's some excellent work being done, of course, and also some work w. (IMVHO) very questionable premises that no one in the field questions. Among some researchers/practitioners, my "VHO" is that there is a kind of reductionist thinking going on, which is subtle, in a way, and kind of self-reinforcing. It's work to lay it all out - and then again, one needs a receptive audience.

Hi Nate,

Just to pose something:

re: "Psychology is a subset of biology"

Or else biology is a subset of psychology. Perhaps some truth in this as well.

How about let's say these fields of study intersect?

Here’s how we tested our suspicion. With the collaboration of the management of an upscale hotel in the Phoenix area, we put one of four different cards in its guestrooms. One of the cards stated “HELP SAVE THE ENVIRONMENT,” . A different card stated “HELP SAVE RESOURCES FOR FUTURE GENERATIONS,” . A third type of card stated “PARTNER WITH US TO HELP SAVE THE ENVIRONMENT,” . A final type of card stated “JOIN YOUR FELLOW CITIZENS IN HELPING TO SAVE THE ENVIRONMENT,” which was followed by information that the majority of hotel guests do reuse their towels when asked. The outcome? Compared to the first three messages, the final (social norm) message increased towel reuse by an average of 34% (Goldstein, Cialdini, & Griskevicius, 2007).

No mention if they put a card that simply said, "Please help us keep your prices low by reusing the towels." Or, "Additional towels will be charged a nominal fee."

"If you want Change, keep it in your pocket. Your money is your only real vote."

You are asking for a big brother approach you realize. A top down government decree micro managing the entire hotel industry and ensuing bureaucracy. Why you ask?

Quite simply the first chain to raise prices and hit "you" in the pocket will see "you" going the the other hotel that does not have the laundry charge.

Yes. Yes, I am. I'm asking for a Big Brother who is more mature than NASCAR Joe Sixpack to tell him not to stay in hotels or to travel when he doesn't need to.
I don't see why this would involve the government, though. Simply actual leadership by the hotel owners (and their associations who fix the prices....yes they do). As with all business groups or corporations that CLAIM to be members of the community, they should be taking on responsibilities to improve the world wherever they can that doesn't drastically affect staying in business. Leadership sells. Government leadership, doubly so, but I dare you to find some and prove it.

Also, all Cialdini's hotel towel example illustrates -if anything- is that patrons of upscale hotels can best be motivated to reuse towels if they are led to believe the majority of their guests are doing so.

Or it may not even illustrate that much. It might be possible, for example, that most guests who already reuse their towels do so for consciously environmental reasons. We would therefore not expect cards that carry a generic "save the environment" message to significantly increase towel reuse -these cards are targeted at an audience that has already bought into the message. The fourth card by contrast may appeal to people who don't care so much about the environment but do care about conforming to the apparent expectations of their peers. In that case the greater perceived efficacy of the fourth card is due to the fact it is in fact targeting a different audience, not because people are somehow predisposed to regard the way the message is framed more favorably.

It is worth noting in this regard that the first 3 cards contain only generic messages, while the fourth pairs the generic message with specific information that relates the guest's behavior to the desired outcome (which is in itself a potential methodological flaw).

In other words: Conformist thinking and marketing works with conformists (upscale customers are people who know how to 'play the game' and enjoy doing so; this is just another game to them, like the Hybrid owners and their gas mileage competitions).

Non-conformist ideas (ecology) appeal to non-conformists.

Know your target market. Put a bible in every room so the adulterous guilt doesn't sink in so far.

A good analysis of social behavior...however, I see a possible dark side to what Prof. Cialdini is saying. Societies that try to tightly control the news use the kind of reasoning here, reasoning that may be described as an attempt to avoid the 'self-fulfilling prophecy.' The rationale is that if the media puts out only good news, the actual bad news will go away. Conversely, putting out bad news encourages the occurrence of more bad news. Beware self-censorship of 'bad' news or, for that matter, institutional censorship of any kind.

yes, this approach can be discribed with one word:


Propaganda works as long as it does not come into obvious conflict with reality, at which point people start to deeply resent it. Wonder whether this approach would have worked in, say, Dresden, Germany, short after Communism fell. In the USA, many uses of propaganda that would be obvious to Europeans go unnoticed because people have never been exposed directly to pervasive propaganda that is in conflict with reality, and therefore have not developed defense mechanisms.

In the USA, many uses of propaganda that would be obvious to Europeans go unnoticed because people have never been exposed directly to pervasive propaganda that is in conflict with reality, and therefore have not developed defense mechanisms.

This is absolutely correct.

Furthermore, within Europe you can observe the same phenomenon. As a simple example, let's look at the attitude of Europeans as regards public statements by the State of Israel and its antoganists. Essentially, the closer in Europe they are to this region, the more sceptical and cynical is their attitude towards official utterances by either parties. At least that is my observation.

The difference between what we are talking about here and propaganda is that propaganda is a lie. I agree that it is extremely powerful, as we saw in the run-up to the Iraq debacle. The mainstream media chanted the drumbeat "It is inevitable. It is inevitable. It is inevitable." until everyone believed it. The war was not necessary, not inevitable, it was a choice made by a small number of notorious liars for reasons that are still being disputed.

What the researchers are talking about, in contrast, is framing the truth, which is very different from propaganda. Addition they don't seem to be advocating specifically government-run messages. It is a paper on framing methods in general.

I agree with the researchers and I think we should take advantage of whatever advertising methods are most effective. For example:

If an environmental or small car company ran an add saying that SUV sales have been dropping steadily for the past 3 years (which is true), viewers would see the following SUV commercial (0% financing, $5000 cashback, Make no payments until 2009!) as what it really is: a desperate attempt to rake in a few more marks by a conman who knows the end is nigh.

We should not abandon the truth as so many corporations and governments have for short-term gain/profit. We should, however, use the most effective means we have of changing behaviors. Although we may not have absolute numbers, emphasis on the high rate of growth of green behaviors/companies will encourage people to "get in on the ground floor" and in time we will have the social norm to help us.

As long as we stick to true statistics and facts I see no reason not to use this research for our advantage.

Any solution to peak oil, global warming and poverty will depend on wide or universal access to contraception.

This does suggests that individuals can make a difference in cases where their actions are highly visible. An example would would be something like commuting to work on a bicycle. Although there are days when it is hot and I am tired that that ride home is a bit longer than I would like.

A fuel efficient car is somewhat visible, but people buy vehicles for all sorts of reasons.

Cutting VMT is even less visible, as you aren't out there as much. Speaking of which, yesterday I realized that it had been 2 weeks since my last fillup, and the fuel gauge still reads 5/8.

The trouble is that if you act alone, you will be seen as the odd one out, the crazy guy. Try to go shopping at Wal-Mart with a leather tote bag and refuse any plastic bag. The associates will probably not understand what you want, pack your items into plastic bags and then those plastic bags into the leather bag, and will thing that you are quite an odd guy.

You are quite right about that! For years I have taken my canvas bag to the grocery and my reusable carry out meal container('turkey') to restaurants to avoid getting either plastic bags or styrofoam containers. These days I shop mostly at the local 'fresh' market where canvas bags are the norm but if I wander into a conventional grocery with my canvas bag usually the clerk frowns and asks 'Do we sell these?'. When I explain that I carried it in to hold my purchases, I usually have to prevent the bagger from just putting the plastic bags into it. My friends that I eat with are used to me bringing along my 'turkey' but they regard this as 'ecentric' behavior and none of them have elected to do the same despite considering themselves as 'environmentally aware'. They all do get the styrofoam 'doggie bags' at nearly every meal for leftovers.

HI TnGran,

Probably no one will see this, but when I tried to reply back when, there were computer problems - somewhere!

Anyway, just wanted to mention that a friend suggested to a local, commerical (not co-op or anything) grocery store that they make up canvas bags w. a logo (which I believe he designed) - on it. They have and they do sell.

So...And the great marketer "Trader Joe" has a kind of raffle, if people bring their own bags, they get a ticket for a drawing. Of course, this depends on "green" being in. Even if it's not - this can change.

Just some ideas you might try, if anyone might listen.

I have a couple of reusable shopping bags, one canvas (from Land's End), one synthetic.  I don't use them all the time (right now the canvas one is full of computer) but they've saved quite a bit of plastic over the years and won me a few dollars of bag credits (Meijer gives you 5¢ per re-used paper bag, and they give it to me for canvas).

Well, shopping at WalMart is another matter entirely, and I would argue that WalMart would probably be the last place to start something like this. If you go to a farmer's market, the people there would probably understand exactly what you want.

I guess my point is that if you act in visible ways, other people can see it, and it becomes incrementally less odd. The next person to start can see that they aren't the first to try something.

Even worse, if you cut VMT, you reduce congestion. People then drive more to make up, as in many cities it is congestion that puts a limit on how much driving is done.

We don't see messages from the government urging energy conservation because it goes against corporate interests. Just think how strange it would be to see a TV commercial urging conservation because everybody's doing it followed by the typical car/SUV commercial. There are no messages to encourage conservation because they go counter to the general theme (deliberate or not) of shaping consumer behavior to maximize sales. The only messages we see are those geared in one way or another toward reenforcing consumptive behavior.
I don't believe we will see any changes to this paradigm until after some disaster hits and is absorbed by the collective to be a result of the energy crisis that has been ongoing. Government could be playing a large role here in changing perceptions (that could even help avert the inevitable and imminent disasters), but the fact that it is completely silent on the topic of conservation is to me a clear indication of a deliberate reenforcement of the status quo. The only reason I can see why maintaining the status quo is so important is because it is actually corporate interests calling the shots to the exclusion of any other "interests."
So without Western governments' help it will take a disaster shown on TV such as a riot in the US caused by gas shortages that would go very far in changing perceptions. It would be unfortunate if that is what it takes to change behaviors but I think even when that happens there will be the typical blame game that steers clear of the real reasons, because getting into the real reasons will, again, ultimately cause a reduction of sales.
So the charade will be perpetuated to the point of ridiculousness before conservation (and everything that goes with it) on a massive and national level will take place.

Reduce, reuse, recycle. Everybody's doing it. Won't this just prolong the inevitable? At which point they'll be even more people? What to do about the 230 million cars and growing in this country? Run them on Ethanol? Batteries? Enjoy the party while it lasts. It will go on as long as it can.

"Reduce, reuse, recycle. Everybody's doing it. Won't this just prolong the inevitable?"

Surely. With current technology, there is no way we last longer than some 4 or 5 bilions of years... So what is the point?

And, about too many people, that problem is already fixing itself. We just need more time (ops, there is a point here).

I was referring specifically to gasoline usage, actually. And the R,R,R message is pretty old and weak. More like a co-opt if you ask me.

What I hate about REDUCE, Reuse, recycle is that people think that if they recycle that they're doing their part (copious consumption and recycling) but that's wrong. The first, and most important step, is to REDUCE; then reuse, and lastly recycle. That being said plastics don't really get recycled ...

Home Power magazine has been having articles on hybrids and hybrids vs diesels - not bad actually. They go into actual milage vs the ratings and benefits and costs of technology. I didn't like the one about a truck hybrid claiming less oil changes because of less IC engine use. I change our engine oil yearly - every 6,000 mi.

Recently my wife posed a question. If we were to spend $5k living our values and doing something to show them to our neighbours what could we do?

Well I quickly ruled out PV panels - $2,500 incremental cost for a grid intertie inverter. Solar water heating is in that price range - but why spend $5k on solar water heating to save us $50/yr?! We could ditch the aluminum patio door that is an energy sink with 1/4" of ice on it in the winter; but the savings for that would be >20 years and the neigbhours would never notice. A wind turbine is out of the question - you'd have to go 5m above the house and we're not allowed towers that tall.

The only option that has come to mind is to ditch our pollution spewing 1897 Ford Escort Wagoon and get a car and electrify it. Except we'd freeze in the 4 months of winter and, again, the savings would be marginal (we don't even use the car for 6,000 mi/yr).

"The first, and most important step, is to REDUCE; then reuse, and lastly recycle."


As to what you can do that is visible: spend $5 on a clothesline - and use it! You can keep the other $4995...

Only way to steer public behavior in the long term is with penalties that cost the person for not complying. Don't want the public to use plastic bags? Then put a $1.00 dollar tax on them and use the money for cleaning the streets of liter. If you want plastic bottles recycled, then put a $0.15 deposit on them ($0.25 for large bottles) and see how clean your city streets will be. Missouri, which has voted against container deposit requirements, has filthy streets compared to those in California where that state has a deposit on all beverage containers.

To conserve on oil, put a federal $1.00 per gallon tax on oil before it hits the refinery. Then use the tax money to pay for the war in Iraq. US involvement in that war would end in less than two months.

There are times when pure capitalism needs to bow to society taking a stand.
For instance banning bottled water and plastic bags.
We need to end having government agencies which are supposed to promote and enforce industries (FDA telling us what we should be eating - but also pushing meat and diary upon kids in schools) or nuclear regulatory government in the same position.

Government exists to protect us; from the powerful, from the corporations - to enact certain minimum standards and enforce them.

The pollution of our biosphere has to stop and it's not going to if it's self regulation or the polluters heading up the EPA.

Self regulation doesn't always work. It certainly doesn't work with those addicted to gambling or drugs (alcohol, tobacco) and we need to stop deluding ourselves that it will. It certainly is not working with pollution of our air, water and soil. It certainly is not working with the destruction of our farm land; the draining down of our aquifers.

Putting a cost to things to get rid of externalization is the pure economists solution - but it doesn't always work.
Someone has to do things because they are right - not because there is money (carrot) or costs (stick). We do not have a right to live - we are not in a position to enforce that. We can't stop people from eating junk food and getting obesity, heart disease, diabetes, MS and on and on.
But we can ban trans fats, provide education for all, provide health care for all, provide basic government services for all.

These things we can do - because they are right. It is what makes our society different than the "law of the jungle".

But since Regan we've been marching backwards and it's time that we elected government officals who did their job.

There could be ad campaigns that make car use unsexy, sort of like the smoking ad campaigns. There could be energy education, since people are clueless how much energy they consume in their daily choices. Like canvas bags are a stupid improvement if one drives 10 miles to use them (think how many plastic bags worth of oil they consume as they drive somewhere to use their feel-good canvas bag).

I know the practical difficulties in this country to get people to drive less, but that is why this country is so screwed. I've seen the infrastructure in The Netherlands and elsewhere in Europe and it enhances my view that this country is exceptionally screwed in comparison.

At least if we could make cars less sexy there would be a slow move towards more bicycle-friendly roads and better bus systems. I use both those options almost exclusively but get the impression others feel sorry for me. Not driving a car is currently associated with being down and out.

This type of conservation and educational messaging has to come from the government because businesses will be damned to jeopardize their car sales or other sales facilitated by the car culture. Personally I think the government won't do it because its main charter today is to serve corporate interests.

Some time ago, I said that efficiency, solar energy and the like would really begin to take off when they became fashionable.  Sounds like other people are saying the same thing in different words.

Where there is no Social Pressure to Conform

It took me quite a few years to determine why I was so strongly drawn to New Orleans. Yes, I enjoy the food (too much :-), music, architecture, lifestyle and friendliness, but none of these could explain the depths of my commitment.

A close friend (a gay banker BTW) explained that it was what New Orleans did not have, social pressure to conform to societal expectations. (We are also very tolerant of mental illness here as well).

I could not pursue my path anywhere else in the United States. The social freedom to do as I please, to follow my own path, yet remain fully engaged in society, explains why no one else is doing what I do.

IMVHO, most social activists either live in their own subculture or become disaffected & alienated from their day-to-day culture and loss much social support.

It also explains the comment by my psychiatrist friend's remark "The longer one lives in New Orleans, the less fit one is to live anywhere else. And that is a good thing".

Best Hopes for Freedom,


HI Alan,

Thanks. I like this post. And just a thought...there's always the possibility such an open culture can spread. The rest of us are ready!

I think there's maybe even more to it - there's something about "anything goes" that can make a lot of meanness also be ok. My guess is there's openness plus something else - maybe some kind of value placed on helping, or on compassion, as you've illustrated previously.