Is nudge enough? Comment series

At Green Alliance’s annual debate on Wednesday our esteemed panellists will be arguing (or perhaps agreeing?) over whether government needs to do more than nudge us towards greener living.

Comment series
Given government’s interest in nudging its citizens towards leading better lives, we thought this was a question that deserved broader discussion. So, we’ve asked several commentators who work in this area to give their opinions in blog posts this week, before and after the debate. You can read their articles here and also on the authors’ own blogs. We’re really excited to kick things off with two great pieces – one from Green Alliance’s associate Becky Willis, and one from Futerra’s Solitaire Townsend.

So are nudges, such as telling people how much energy others use, or introducing more cycle lanes, a breakthrough or a distraction? Could better nudging people potentially revolutionise green living policy, or does government need to go further?

We’ll be adding our opinions and we’d love to hear yours in the comments!


  • Richard Burnett-Hall

    There was no debate on Wednesday evening. All the speakers started by saying that a nudge was not enough. But none of them said why it was not, and completely failed to address the essential questions that have to be answered first. Namely: (1) what is sustainable living, (2) when do we need to achieve that, and (3) what has to be changed over that period to get from where we are now to genuine sustainable living? Only then can you answer (4) what will best effect that (necessary) change? If we have only a vague idea of what sustainability is, and are content to take 200 years to get there, then maybe 200 years of nudging, coupled with constantly rising commodity prices, is indeed all that is needed. What we in fact had was a variety of interesting contributions answering the last question (4). However without any clarity as to what has to be achieved and how quickly, nobody gave any convincing reason not to stay with the (wholly inadequate) short-termism that politicians inevitably adopt, for the reasons explained by Oliver Letwin.

    On the first question, Professor Tim Jackson has spelled out what living sustainably entails better than anyone else I know. Essentially it means ZERO growth as a default position, except in so far as advances in technology enable more to be got out of less. A core aim of UK policy should therefore be to cultivate those advances, and to export them profitably around the world – for everyone will need them. The standard politicians’ assumption, reinforced by the Treasury, is that the more that GDP grows the better for us all, and that consumer led growth is as good as any other. For so long as that is the over-riding message from Government, neither it nor we can expect any significant response from the population a a whole to “nudges” in favour of reduced consumption.

    How long have we got to achieve sustainability? Given the current rapid growth of the BRICs countries, and the massive populations involved, I would put it at a generation – around 30 years – at most. The sooner the better, so far as the UK is concerned, so we can isolate ourselves from the inevitable non-renewable resource scarcities, and the consequent escalating prices.

    I fully understand, and respect, the reluctance of politicians with seats to defend in the next election to spell out what is required. But if they cannot or will not show the necessary leadership, someone else must. I invite the Green Alliance to take that lead.

  • I agree with Richard, there was no real debate, lots of talk and ideas but no debate.

    So how do we move forward? What needs to be done?

    For an interesting take on moving the discussion forward I recommmend visiting the website as the idea of compression flies in the face of current ‘growth’ thinking which seems to be the politicians and thought leaders main answer.

    For my part and it was something that was not touched upon during the ‘debate’, the only pragmatic way of getting people really involved is to focus on explicite cost reductions of energy by reducing current energy demand before investing in energy saving technologies and renewable energy solutions.

  • Rebekah Phillips

    Hi Richard and Peter,

    Thanks for your comments.

    This debate on the scale of action needed, and what exactly we need to be heading towards in terms of sustainable lifestyles, is something we will be picking up over the coming few months under our Green Living theme.

    We will be starting off with a piece to get people thinking on energy demand, it will challenge the idea that we can all use as much energy as we like (as long as we can pay). It will be authored by Becky Willis and Tim Jackson.

    We’ll keep you posted as our work develops.


    • Richard Burnett-Hall

      Rebekah, I’m delighted to hear that, and shall be very interested to see what emerges. Certainly a good start. I’m not a hair shirt puritan, though, and if we could get all our energy needs from renewable resources (as the Scots intend to achieve quite soon), without any harmful consequences, then people would only want or need to reduce their energy consumption to the extent that it made economic sense to do so – and that would of course vary from one individual to the next.

      It is the consumption of non-renewable resources that is, I believe, the crucial concern. This is driven by the widely held assumption, certainly among politicians, the Treasury and journalists, that an economy that does not grow is doomed to fail, and rightly so. Sooner or later we are, as a nation (as a planet, even), going to have to have a new economic model that accounts properly for the use of resources. How we get there is the challenge, and one that Tim Jackson is far better equipped to answer than I am.

  • Completely understand what your stance in this matter. Though I’d disagree on some of the finer particulars, I feel you did an awesome job explaining it. Sure beats having to analysis it on my own. Thanks.

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