Actually, the way the question is usually framed as, "why do those other people do all that bad stuff?". A solution that many kind-hearted, green-minded people come up with is to try to inform the public, and to change their minds. A persistent theme running through the book is: that approach doesn't work, because information isn't the key to behavior. Putting up signs in the bathrooms that say "These paper towels come from trees!" is worse than useless.
The problem usually is not that we don't know or that we don't care; it's that we have many different values that we care about, and many different habits we rely on, and many different structural constraints built into the way we live our lives. DeSombre illustrates this point with her own experience. I don't have the book in front of me anymore so this isn't an exact quote, but she says something like,
I'm a committed environmentalist, and I know how harmful automobile culture is, and yet I drove to the coffee shop today to work on this book because it was raining and I didn't want to bike or walk in the rain.
So why do good people use bad plastic? Part of the issue is the "bad actors" who structure the situation to make it hard to avoid (say, companies who want to sell more plastic and who flood the market). She notes this isn't just a matter of power-and-money vs. powerlessness; the small number of players who have a vested interest in producing more plastic makes it easier for them to organize, where as the vast numbers of people who are very or mildly ticked off by plastic trash form a diffuse group who have many priorities. It's not just money and power; it's social graph theory at work. "The broader point is that externalities are more likely to be created, and more resistant to being addressed, when those who suffer are more numerous and more spread out (and those who cause the externalities are smaller in number and more able to coordinate their action.)" [p. 31]
Compounding this is something known as the "Jevons Effect", which posits that a more efficient use of a resource (or perceived efficiency) can lead to increased use of that resource. More efficient lighting sources has led our society to use more lights; more efficient air conditioning has led to ubiquitous (over) use of AC; computers have increased our use of paper instead of decreasing it.
And although she doesn't give this example, I do believe that widespread adoption of recycling in past decades led to increased comfort with using plastic, giving us another example of the Jevons effect in action. (When I was growing up, there was no curbside recycling of anything. I remember reading an article by a social scientist who predicted that future generations would mine landfills to extract valuable plastic once we ran out of resources to make this material). We've come to accept recycling as the good and natural order of things, so much so, that when China stopped accepting recycling, many people got mad at our city waste management authority because "they won't let us recycle any more". Now we don't have a way to feel virtuous about disposing of plastic yogurt tubs . . . but that virtuous feeling had its downside. Although recycling of plastics increased in the past decades, production of new plastic ramped up even more.
But let's return to the question of information. We keep thinking that information will change people's behavior, but it almost never does, because (a) people usually already know, and (b) they care about other stuff more. (Yes, paper towels come from trees, but I need to dry my hands). Knowledge and education can't overcome expense or inconvenience.
The exceptions to this ineffective information rule come in a variety of ways. Information can help change behavior when it is
- new knowledge (for example, last Halloween, many people avoided candy made with Palm Oil when they learned of its role in deforestation);
- long-term education of children;
- "procedural" knowledge: how exactly to recycle, or who to call for an energy audit.
In my own words, we're more likely to change if we get "how to" information, not "why to", information.
Another kind of information that can be powerful is feedback, provided we can figure out how to get it. (It's very hard for most of us to get feedback on how our house uses energy, for example. If you think about which of your appliances used the most energy in the past week, how would you know?) But with plastic, you really can self-monitor, if you're up for the task. For me, back in 2012 I started the simple task of just counting how many trash cans I put at the curb (not even paying attention to what was in those trash cans). That year, my family filled our garbage can 23 times. Somehow, without entirely knowing exactly how, that number has come down dramatically. Okay, I admit that having our last three kids move out during the past few years has contributed a bunch to the decrease in trash we produce. But I do think that just being aware of our garbage has had the bigger effect.
Part of the reason, DeSombre would suggest, is that personal feedback can often lead to changes in infrastructure. When this happens, she points out, the infrastructure change (like installing new water-saving toilets) means that daily decisions (shortening showers) aren't required to achieve the same kind of results. My own acquisition of a curated canning jar menagerie during the past decade certainly helps me avoid food storage bags, saran wrap, yogurt containers, etc.
Another reason my trashcan count might work so well, she'd suggest, is that feedback needs to
- be in terms that people understand (cost, say, as opposed to CO2 emissions),
- have a basis for comparison (to neighbors or to previous behavior),
- be almost immediate in time, and
- be given in a way that people can see it (they don't have to go looking).
The book also has chapters on habit. The paragraph that got me thinking most from this chapter was on one of our stickiest habits: "One of the major areas for environmentally relevant habits is commuting." Drivers tend to drive everywhere, even if a bus, metro, etc might be a more convenient way to get to a store, etc. "We tend to use the same mode of transport no matter where we are going." There's more good stuff in that chapter, but that was the section that really got me thinking.
Toward the end, DeSombre returns to attitudes and policy. She notes that calling upon our attitudes and values that are not specifically environmental can help us persuade ourselves (and others): appealing to frugality is more effective than appealing to environmentalism in conserving gas. We can appeal to good parenting (avoid pesticides) or being a proud resident of a place (avoid degradation). Calling attention to people's identity is more powerful than providing information, as anyone familiar with the "Don't Mess With Texas" anti-litter campaign well knows. Indeed, ironically, focusing on certain environmental behaviors as morally "good" in their own right makes it more likely that people will reward themselves for "noble" actions by allowing "bad" behavior -- a "moral licensing" paradox that echoes the Jevons effect she described earlier. So focusing on other deep-seated values has multiple advantages.
And changing social norms is an important step in making policy change easier. "A community that has already reduced its use of disposable grocery bags is much less likely to stand in the way of policy action to eliminate or tax the remaining use. Policy at local levels . . . can then increase support for policy at higher levels of government."
So, this brings us to the close of my Plastic-free July blogging. It's been as intense as I thought it would be, and honestly more fun than I thought it would be. I ended up learning a bunch of stuff myself (especially about so-called styrofoam and about silcone, but also about fun things like chocolate syrup and wine vinegar). Thanks so much for tagging along with me!