Most approaches to “solving” our climate and resource crises focus on technology: replacing fossil fuels with a different technology (solar, wind, ethanol, nuclear), or increasing the efficiency of our current technology. We focus on increasing the efficiency of things which would then be used in the same way – adding insulation to single-family homes, or doubling the efficiency of single-user cars that sit idle in the garage and parking lot for the vast majority of their lives, or harnessing renewable sources of energy that would then continue to be used unnecessarily and wastefully. While these solutions may marginally slow the velocity of an economic and energy descent, they can’t seriously apply the brakes to the very unpleasant net energy freefall that may be in store for our society.
Again, a measure that requires no new technology or investment, but massively unattractive in a world of our existing infrastructure of suburbs, exurbs, and norms that value and in fact, demand speed and convenience over health, safety, or environment.
These simple ideas are not new or original. Many of these measures were popular during World War II, and are still common in other parts of the world. Yet if they were quickly implemented in a widespread way, instead of being despised as the lunatic fringe, these types of changes would go a long way to addressing the crises we face in the short term and would buy us time and money to make other investments in a sustainable future. Still, it seems that they have little hope of execution until a fiscal necessity or severe and prolonged energy shock forces them upon us, individual by individual.
Instead of waiting for a crisis to force these changes upon us, kicking and screaming, could we use social force multipliers – new attitudes, expectations, and behaviors – to transform these “unthinkable drastic measures” of conservation and efficiency into positive social ideals? Could American Joe and Jane embrace community, cooperation, reciprocity, interdependence, social interaction, health, and a future for their children as primary values instead of material goods, money, status symbols, convenience, independence, privacy, and “freedom” of consumer choice, as their prime motivators? Could we make sharing and cooperating a point of pride instead of a mark of shame?
Behavioral change is the most difficult kind to create, which is why I believe it hasn’t gotten a proper focus: it’s easier to promote the next new technology, gadget, or green energy source than to suggest a fundamental change of expectations and attitudes. Behavioral change also has a low profit margin, if any at all, which automatically decreases the marketing budget for it. But the next new technology doesn’t have nearly the multiplicative force of a social innovation. So let’s consider putting our money and attention where it counts the most. Could it be time to make the unthinkable – thinkable? The undesirable – desirable? Could it be possible to turn our lemons into lemonade, and have a really good time doing it… so everyone else will want to join the fun?