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Nudge debate – turning fine words into action

At the end of March Green Alliance held its annual debate on a question we’ve talked about a lot on this blog: does government need to do more than nudge us towards sustainable living? The answer from panellists was a resounding yes, but they disagreed quite strongly on whether government is on track to do this.

Oliver Letwin MP, the minister for government policy, said that “change on a large scale” will only come about through a “mixture of crunchy policy, legislation and measures to do with how people act”, supporting the findings of our recent report. He added that with a combination of measures “we really can achieve culture change, which is what it’s all about.”

Nobody is hungry
The question is, are these fine words supported by what government is currently up to? Our analysis – and that of several of the panellists – suggests that in areas like household energy and water use, the answer is no. Simon Roberts, head of the Centre for Sustainable Energy, raised questions over whether the Green Deal to refurbish inefficient homes will be the ‘game changer’ that government has promised. He said that without stamp duty penalties and regulation (for example, banning the sale of homes rated below ‘C’ for energy efficiency by 2020) not enough people will take it up.

He drew an analogy between the government’s current approach and the famous canteen example in Nudge, where the placement of food affects what people choose to eat. He said that government has been arranging its nudges, (for example Energy Performance Certificates and the Green Deal) in the same way as healthy food is rearranged in a canteen to make it more palatable. But it has missed a vital point, he says – nobody is hungry.

When it comes to water, there is very little policy to encourage people to use less, and Letwin recognised that “water is the next great task”. All eyes will be on the water white paper which was due to be published this summer, but is now delayed until autumn.

Panellists were also keen to stress the importance of local action, and of engaging people through groups that already exist, such as sports clubs. Roberts said that not retrofitting homes on a local street-by-street basis was a “missed opportunity for a social experience” which could help get people involved.

Nudge, shove or think?
Over on our online comment series, most authors agreed that nudging people is not enough. Prof Tim Jackson wrote that “the transition to sustainable living demands changes in underlying structures” meaning the economy, infrastructure and institutions, not just nudges on individuals, while Trewin Restorick, head of Global Action Plan, argued that what people need is a shove from someone they trust.

However, Futerra’s Solitaire Townsend and Green Alliance Associate Becky Willis both contend that comprehensive green ‘super nudges’ – such as “a visible, bold investment in public transport, walking and cycling”, restrictions on car adverts and a raise in fuel duty – could get us a long way.

But “what the hell are we nudging people towards?” asked Townsend. “I can’t see how policy, incentives and ‘nudges’ can be developed without a definitive list of what a sustainable lifestyle actually entails.”

Public support
There is also the matter of gaining public support for big policy changes, which imperceptible nudges will not bring about. Psychologist Lorraine Whitmarsh wrote that “by treating the public as passive or ignorant, we risk undermining democratic principles, and – at a more practical level – we lose the opportunity to achieve more significant change which the public – if informed and involved – might actually support.”

Our report concluded that injecting a better understanding of human behaviour into green living policies is essential, but that nudging people is not enough. All the panellists at our debate including Oliver Letwin agreed on this.

In the coming months we’ll be working with government on policies such as the Green Deal, and on issues such as the role of business in delivering behaviour change. Our aim is to push government to keep to its word – and create policies that genuinely bring about widespread greener living.

(First picture – Cardiff University’s Lorraine Whitmarsh and the BBC’s Justin Rowlatt. Second picture – Oliver Letwin MP)

Written by

Sylvia was the editor of Green Alliance's blog from 2010 to April 2013. She is an assistant producer on Al Jazeera English's flagship environmental show, earthrise, and an award-winning print journalist who writes for publications including the Guardian, the Evening Standard and New Scientist. She was previously a policy adviser at Green Alliance.

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