Super nudges to sustainable living

This is a guest post by Solitaire Townsend, co-director of sustainable communications agency Futerra. It is part of a series of comment pieces on whether government needs to do more than nudge us towards sustainable living.

When it comes to sustainable lifestyles most of us suffer from ‘enthusiastic inertia’.  It all sounds rather nice (in a glammed-up Good Life type of way) and we believe it’s a jolly important thing for people to do. But not for us, or at least not for us right now.

That’s where ‘nudge’ comes in.  Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s book “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness” offers behavioural suggestions for tipping enthusiastic inertia over into willing participation. With just a little psychological push decent but unhealthy, high impact consumers could become model citizens.

No wonder the enthusiasm of the Coalition Government for the approach. Including the creation of a Behavioural Insights Team within the Cabinet Office.

Nudging towards what?
I love nudge, and a government that looks beyond incentives and information as change tactics has to be a good thing. When it comes to sustainable lifestyles however, there’s a few niggling problems with nudge right now.

Firstly, what the hell are we nudging people towards? There is no clear (and measurable) definition of a sustainable lifestyle. Reading through the various reports it could be:

Being responsible for only 5/7/10 tons (delete as appropriate) carbon from your home, food and travel. Being healthy and active. Participating in your community (from volunteering to voting). Buying green energy tariffs. Supporting yourself and dependants through a taxable income, gaining skills and/or education, being minimally wasteful/maximum recycling etc etc. Water usage is likely in there somewhere, and probably giving to charity…

Well, that’s my attempt anyway. I can’t see how policy, incentives and ‘nudges’ can be developed without a definitive list of what a sustainable lifestyle actually entails.

It all sounds dull, worthy and prescriptive. Perhaps that’s why the coyness from government on definition. But that’s where nudge is supposed to come in. Have the guts to define it, and people like me will make it desirable.

The other challenges nudge needs to overcome fit nicely under some snappy terms:

  • Nudge-proof – you’re nudge-proof when you have no ability to act. Nudging people out of cars when there’s no decent public transport come to mind. Or recycling nudges towards appallingly uncoordinated services.
  • Jolt – a deviant nudge, e.g. subsidies to oil.
  • Shove –  the huge nudge government needs to give itself. Major changes to governments own operations, purchasing and footprint to become the leading example of a ‘sustainable’ organisation.
  • Nullified nudges – incentivising electric cars whilst reducing fossil fuel duty.
  • Nudge by proxy – getting business to do it.
  • Super nudges – well funded nudges which are fully integrated across governments major policies, interventions and departments (yes, including Treasury). Avoiding nullification, jolts and nudge proof nasties.

So yes, government does need to do more than nudge. It needs to super nudge us towards a specific (and desirable) sustainable lifestyle.

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