Nudging people towards greener living would be great – but it’s not happening

This is a guest post by Rebecca Willis, an associate of Green Alliance.

Does government need to do more than nudge us toward sustainable living? I think the short answer to this question is a simple no.

If government seriously turned its attention to nudging people toward sustainable living, and made that an overriding objective of its administration, we would be much closer to achieving our green goals. Nudge authors Thaler and Sunstein refer to altering the ‘choice architecture’ to encourage the right decisions. That’s exactly what the government should be doing. And it’s a million miles away from the reality of government policy today.

The debate about green nudges tends to default to discussion of small, non-threatening interventions that convince people that green is good. So, vouchers for recycling – and visible recycling facilities – nudge people to do the right thing with their rubbish. Information on energy bills showing what neighbours are spending might push the energy-profligate toward rethinking their habits.  Nudge, it’s argued, is about little signs that point the way, rather than cumbersome regulations.

Nudged in the wrong direction
Sounds sensible. But it ignores an absolutely massive problem. While the government busily introduces tiny green nudges, the very way our economy and existing policies are structured screams out a very different message. People are nudged, prodded, poked and shoved many times a day, every day: and nearly always in the wrong direction.

Here are three nudges that I’ve personally encountered over the past week:

  • The volume of traffic on the school run makes it much harder to cross the roads on foot: a nudge toward car use.
  • The Chancellor announced a reduction in fuel duty, sending a clear message that there is no alternative to road transport and that driving is to be encouraged.
  • Planning policy has reduced the number of food shops in the town centre, nudging me to drive to an out-of-town supermarket to shop.

Being a stubborn greenie, I stolidly resist these nudges, clinging to my trusty bike and teaching my children that cars are for softies. But I’m swimming (and cycling) against the tide.

Road transport accounts for nearly a quarter of all carbon emissions. Car travel involves massive transfers of public money from the poor to the rich (here’s the evidence [hyperlink: http://www.sd-commission.org.uk/publications.php?id=1179 ] ). Yet every day, I am nudged towards my car.

The tiny green nudges in the other direction – a cycle path here, a healthy schools initiative there – are a drop in the ocean compared to the massive shoves in favour of car use.

What would a serious nudge policy for transport include? It would involve tighter planning restrictions, to prevent out-of-town developments, maybe linked to parking charges for a financial nudge. It would include visible, bold investment in public transport, walking and cycling, as has happened in London. It would seek to restrict car adverts, maybe even raising a levy on car advertising to fund alternatives. And yes, it would involve raising, not lowering, fuel duty.

The fly in the urinal
Thaler and Sunstein’s hypothesis in Nudge is pretty sound. The problem comes with their populist examples – the famous fly painted on the urinal that encourages men to, er, aim correctly; or the placing of healthy products at eye-level on supermarket shelves. These examples trivialise a fundamentally sound argument: that nudging is about sending consistent signals to guide decisions.

At the moment, the vast majority of the nudges people receive tell them that it’s ok to use lots of energy, drive as much as they want and eat strawberries in February. Proper nudging would change the policy framework, alter economic incentives, and set clear expectations about what people should and shouldn’t be doing. That’s the kind of nudging I’d like to see.

2 comments

  • Pingback: Is nudge enough? Comment series | the green living blog

  • I totally agree that tiny green nudges are totally inadequate and may even distract us from making the kind of changes we need to get transformational shifts in behaviour – energy policy is a good example. We urgently need to help people significantly reduce their energy use. Giving them better bills is a start but unlikely to deliver much. A letter with some figures on it will be thrown into the bin by the majority of people. We need to fundamentally change the way we provide energy – for example we should ensure energy suppliers are given a financial incentive to help us reduce our energy. For a start we need to reform the supplier obligation so it is based on actual energy savings. We may need to go further and use regulation similar to that adopted in California that means that suppliers can earn more for selling less energy. Government is missing a trick by only considering reforms to the wholesale electricity market and not the retail market.

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