Off the rebound & doing stuff

greenUgh – another manifesto for hopelessness. Just what we need. In “Do Green Products Make Us Better People?” researchers from the University of Toronto found that “mere exposure to green products and the purchase of such products lead to markedly different behavioral consequences“. Good consequences? No; “people act less altruistically and are more likely to cheat and steal after purchasing green products than after purchasing conventional products“. Well, that is depressing. What is to be done?

These unintended consequences (usually negative) of our actions are a “road-to-hell-paved-with-good-intentions” kinda-thing. Those folk in Toronto blamed it upon something they described as the “licensing effect” where the green purchase gives you a feel-good-halo effect so you feel ‘less-bad’ about doing something awful elsewhere in your life. Today I bought a smaller car so tomorrow I will go nick my neighbour’s lawn mower. Somehow we think that requires some qualification!

Enter the 2013 book “The Burning Question” by Mike Berners-Lee and Duncan Clark (Profile Books ISBN 978 178125 045 7 – reviewed here and here) the authors dubbed this problem the “ethical rebound” citing a paper called “Self-interest and pro-environmental behaviour” (L. Evas et al 2012) published in Nature. In this the researchers found that changing people’s behaviour was far more effective if there were given “self-transcending reasons” (ie, saving the planet versus saving money). People asked to perform tasks such as car sharing or recycling did so more effectively when exposed to environmental messages rather than just financial ones. The environmental message puts a boundary around the rebound. In effect it is rewriting the story of WHY we do stuff.

So, for example, these studies suggest that attempts to get people to insulate their homes might be more effective if both environmental and monetary gains were explained to the consumer. If not then you might save a tonne of money on your gas bill and blow the savings on a flight to Australia consequently emitting several tonnes of carbon in the process. If you are doing it to ALSO reduce carbon emissions then you might spend the money on a holiday at home. In “The Burning Question” the authors list four separate rebound effects that backfire on attempts to save energy:

  1. Efficiency makes something cheaper so you use more it
  2. Saving leads to spending elsewhere on something else (hence overall consumption stays the same)
  3. Others absorb the slack, ie if you don’t burn that oil it becomes cheaper making it easier for someone else to consume more in the global economy
  4. “Social and technical ripples” where increased consumption elsewhere increases consumption of infrastructure such as roads or building bigger houses

As is say – a manifesto for hopelessness. Precisely what we don’t need right now. Although well argued and apparently backed by statistical evidence there is a principle conundrum that hangs over “rebound” theory. Since abundant cheap coal, oil and gas extraction started over 200 years ago then the economy has been growing exponentially ever since. It is very difficult to detect chicken from egg. Arguably the economy’s exponential growth happens DESPITE all these energy efficiency changes not BECAUSE of them. How would we know? It is not a reason for hopelessness – far from it. Maybe we should try harder in the expectation that all that cheap-energy-fuelled growth might not always be there?

Despite these doubts the theory says that global carbon emissions are like a balloon. You can squeeze one part of it but it just bulges somewhere else. Hence global carbon emissions haven’t been decreasing despite all our new wind turbines and solar panels. Berners-Lee and Clark seem convinced that the only way to stop the carbon emissions increasing was to agree a global limit – a budget for all nations. Until that happens these authors believed that the only contribution increased energy efficiency & clean power generation had would be to offer ‘leadership’. This ‘leadership’ would change the social and cultural “norm” making political change more likely. In other words all that insulation and solar panels might not have a big impact direct on the growing carbon emissions – however if they make these solutions more acceptable then our leaders might be more willing to make the necessary global agreements to cap emissions.

This seems a little soul destroying. Is that the best we can do? Make a new Kyoto agreement more politically acceptable? That seems naïve. It seems sad.

Offering ‘leadership’ explains our involvement with the Superhomes charity and the Low Carbon Chilterns Co-operative but we wish for something more than just a slightly more successful Copenhagen Climate Change Summit. Who would work for that? These small efforts will not make much difference in themselves but they build a momentum and build economies of scale. We believe (to put it another way) that WE are rewriting the story. This is a new narrative -it’s our motivation. We don’t know how this story ends but it is an exciting journey. Every day we turn a new page and write the contents with a billion small words. None in themselves write the plot but the words build the sentences that build the paragraphs that build and build into the chapter-by-chapter breakdown of the story we are discovering. So despite all the apparent evidence (that tries to persuade us that we are wasting our time on useless solo efforts) there is a reason to continue. There is hope. There is tremendous power in just doing stuff and that power is more persuasive than vague promises of some new Kyoto agreement. Doing stuff ourselves can be an end in itself.

But how do you know if your “stuff” is making things better or worse? Well… Not so simple. But here is a suggestion to start with: look beyond the label – think about how it is seen. Sticking an “eco” label on your latest purchase is not really contributing by itself. Buying a ‘hybrid’ Lexus is still buying a Lexus. It might make you feel good but you would need an over-arching cultural influence to turn that purchasing power into a truly persuasive meme. The Lexus doesn’t matter unless you take it down the Golf Club and persuade everyone there to trade in their SUVs for one.

To put it more poetically: if we need to sing a different song we will need, not only a different melody, but a few deft new dance moves.

So, if you need any more clues here’s a head start: “The Power of Just Doing Stuff – How local action can change the world” (ISBN 978 0 85784 117 9) by Rob Hopkins is now available from all good book stores and “argues that this shift represents the seeds of a new economy – the answer to our desperate search for a new way forward – and at its heart is people deciding that change starts with them.” Good luck. We’ll need it.

About post-carbon-man

A passionate advocate of a peaceful transition to a sustainable political-economy, Mark hails from a working class farming background. Today he is a Company Director and Chairman of the Low Carbon Chilterns Co-operative. Whilst at University (Engineering Masters) he was active in Conservative Student politics but has had no affiliation since. He has travelled widely on business covering the USA, Europe, Middle East and Central Asian Republics. In 2007 Mark founded Post-Carbon-Living and a year later co-founded Transition Town High Wycombe. He lives with is wife & daughter in a home they retrofitted to be carbon-neutral. Today he blogs about surviving politics on a shrinking planet and is passionate in his rejection of Nationalism.

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