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Small green behaviors: Encouraging or distracting?

Wednesday, December 23rd, 2009


There’s been some debate over the past month as to whether small green behaviors, such as changing out compact fluorescent lightbulbs, spur people to take bigger steps—say, buying a hybrid car, weatherizing a home, or commuting to work.

One camp says no.  In a blog post, We cannot change the world by changing our buying habits, George Monbiot argued (links his)

I’ve never been convinced by this argument. In my experience, people use the soft stuff to justify their failure to engage with the hard stuff. Challenge someone about taking holiday flights six times a year and there’s a pretty good chance that they’ll say something along these lines:

I recycle everything and I re-use my plastic bags, so I’m really quite green.

I wasn’t surprised to see a report in Nature this week suggesting that buying green products can make you behave more selfishly than you would otherwise have done. Psychologists at the University of Toronto subjected students to a series of cunning experiments (pdf). First they were asked to buy a basket of products; selecting either green or conventional ones. Then they played a game in which they were asked to allocate money between themselves and someone else. The students who had bought green products shared less money than those who had bought only conventional goods.

The researchers call this the “licensing effect”. Buying green can establish the moral credentials that license subsequent bad behaviour: the rosier your view of yourself, the more likely you are to hoard your money and do down other people.

Then they took another bunch of students, gave them the same purchasing choices, then introduced them to a game in which they made money by describing a pattern of dots on a computer screen. If there were more dots on the right than the left they made more money. Afterwards they were asked to count the money they had earned out of an envelope.

The researchers found that buying green had such a strong licensing effect that people were likely to lie, cheat and steal: they had established such strong moral credentials in their own minds that these appeared to exonerate them from what they did next. Nature uses the term “moral offset”, which I think is a useful one.

More recently, Mike Tidwell had a column in the Washington Post, To really save the planet, stop going green, in which he argued

December should be national Green-Free Month. Instead of continuing our faddish and counterproductive emphasis on small, voluntary actions, we should follow the example of Americans during past moral crises and work toward large-scale change.

….So what’s the problem? There’s lots of blame to go around, but the distraction of the “go green” movement has played a significant role. Taking their cues from the popular media and cautious politicians, many Americans have come to believe that they are personally to blame for global warming and that they must fix it, one by one, at home. And so they either do as they’re told — a little of this, a little of that — or they feel overwhelmed and do nothing.

However, a few days ago, Margaret Southern posted a column, Stop ‘Going Green’ to Save the Planet?, on TNC’s website in which she argued that there are data to back up the notion that small changes do spur us to make bigger ones (emphasis and links hers):

According to Professor Michael Vandenbergh of Vanderbilt University, co-author of “Household Actions Can Provide a Behavioral Wedge to Rapidly Reduce U.S. Carbon Emissions” (published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences), there is no research to support the assumption that if someone does one good thing (say, bike to work) they would be less likely to do another good thing (support climate change legislation).

In fact, Professor Vandenbergh told NPR that behavior change is contagious:

There are a number of psychological phenomena that suggest that we might actually induce more support for behavior change. When someone becomes committed to a certain behavior, they’re more likely to follow through in other areas as well.

So, those already concerned about conservation might become even more concerned about it as time goes on.

So, while I agree with Tidwell that the conservation-concerned should turn up the heat on Congress and other decision-makers on creating real climate change policies, we don’t have to set aside our green habits even temporarily to do so. I don’t think that setting a good example for personal changes that people can make (that collectively would make a huge difference) is confusing people that either don’t know how to change or don’t care to change.


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