Archive for November, 2008

Stimulating behavioural change: thumbs up

Friday, November 28, 2008

Bread by Carlito_Brigante_.Bread‘ by Carlito Brigante, uploaded to flickr

Fascinating and sensible article about facilitating behavioural change via effective communication published yesterday. Too often, the ‘boomerang effect’ means that undesirable behaviours are reinforced  -

[...] the problem with appeals based on social norms is that they often contain a hidden message.

So, for example, an environmental campaign that focuses on the fact that too many people drive cars with large engines contains two messages — that driving cars with large engines is bad for the environment, and that lots of people are driving cars with large engines. This second message makes it unlikely that the campaign will work. Worse, it might even make it counterproductive: by conveying how common the undesirable behaviour is, it can give those who do not currently engage in that behaviour a perverse incentive to do so. Everyone else is doing it, so why shouldn’t I?

The nub of the matter?  Castigating undesirable behaviour needs to be connected with praise for those who are doing the right thing.

Fortunately, there is a way of harnessing the power of social norms, so that the dreaded “boomerang effect” doesn’t occur.

In a recent experiment, psychologists examined the influence of social norms on the household energy consumption of residents of California. The researchers, led by Wesley Schultz, picked houses at random and then divided them into groups depending on whether their energy consumption was higher or lower than the average for that area. Some low-energy-use households received only information about average energy usage — thereby setting the social norm.

A second group of low-energy households had a positive “emoticon” (happy face) positioned next to their personal energy figure, conveying approval of their energy footprint. A third group of over-consuming households were shown their energy usage coupled with a negative emoticon (sad face), intended to convey disapproval of their higher-than-average footprint.

The researchers then measured energy consumption in the following months. As one might expect, the over-consuming households used the social norm as a motivation to reduce their energy use, but under-consuming households that had received only the social norm information increased their energy use.

Crucially, though, the under-consuming households that had received positive feedback did not show this boomerang effect: the addition of a smiley face next to their energy usage made all the difference. Despite the simplicity of the feedback, households that felt their under-consumption was socially approved (rather than a reason to relax), maintained their small energy footprint. This suggests that using social norms can be effective — but only if they are used in the right way.

Castigating the “majority” of people for driving cars with large engines, without simultaneously praising those who have chosen smaller models could spectacularly backfire. Environmental campaigns using social norms will have to be supplemented with information targeted at specific groups about the desirability of their particular behaviours. If people are doing something positive, they need to know about it.

Five (make that six) reasons to hope

Friday, November 21, 2008

…that global warming is deflected:

1. Hope for the Rain Forests

California, as part of its effort to curtail global warming, could allow companies to pay for projects that preserve Brazilian and Indonesian rain forests, according to Bloomberg. The agreement was described as “pioneering” and goes a long way toward tackling the “other” cause of carbon emissions (other than burning fossil fuels) – destroying forests. Indonesia and Brazil are among the world’s top carbon polluters (No. 3 and No. 4, respectively, behind China and the United States) largely because their forests are disappearing so quickly. This agreement could help stop the 20% of global carbon emissions that come from deforestation.

Indonesia, meanwhile, plans to plant 100 million trees in 2009, according to Reuters. Indonesia has already lost 70% of its original forests, and loses enough forest every year to cover Connecticut and Rhode Island (and then some), but it still retains a forest about the size of Texas and Oklahoma combined.

2. Britain Goes All In

Britain became the first nation in the world to set binding limits on greenhouse gas emissions that match U.N. targets. The law requires the government to slash emissions 80% below 1990 levels by 2050, according to Agence-France Presse. Under the law, Britain will have to meet new carbon-reduction targets every five years.

3. Coal Is on the Defensive
For years, the norm in environmental litigation has been something like this:
- i. Polluting industry proposes polluting
- ii. Government agencies agree
- iii. Environmental groups sue
- iv. Courts side with environmentalists
Well, there’s a new chapter. In Kansas, where the Democratic Gov. (and one-time purported vice presidential possibility for Obama) Kathleen Sebelius stopped the construction of a coal plant because of the greenhouse gas emissions it would pump into the atmosphere, Sunflower Electric is taking her and her environmental agency to court. The company’s complaint? That its civil rights were violated by the governor’s decision.

4. The U.S. Can Cut Energy Use 20%

A new report lays out a framework for U.S. states to dramatically cut energy use — 20% by 2025. The proposed investments in energy efficiency would save $500 billion over 20 years, cut the need for new energy sources by 50% and reduce greenhouse gas emissions dramatically.

So who produced this report? Some radical left-wing conspiracy of economy-killing tree huggers? Nope. Try Bush Administration. The Department of Energy and The Environmental Protection Agency released the report, National Action Plan Vision for 2025: A Framework for Change.

“Change” … Now where have we heard that word recently …?

5. Obama

In a speech delivered via video to a bipartisan climate summit in California, Obama pledged to take strong action to combat global warming. Here’s what he had to say:


- those reasons from 19th November ’08.  There’s also the news from 20th November that an environmentally-progressive US Congressman has upended the formerly oil- and Detroit-friendly leadership of the influential Energy Committee. Which is good for Obama’s agenda, and better for the wider world.  Even if it does foster the end of the car-manufacturing machine as we know it.  Too bad.  So long and thanks for all the (dead) fish.

‘No artist can compete with a tree’

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Mangrove Heart by Arthus-Bertrand by you.

- so said Yves Arthus-Bertrand.  He spotted this mangrove swamp in New Caledonia, Canada, from some flying machine and the naturally-occurring, heart-shaped clearing struck a chord.  He had undertaken his project, ‘Earth from Above’, to express the beauty of the planet and raise awareness about environmental and social issues.  The caption that came with this photo -

Swamps like the one here are crucial to protecting coastlines and cover almost a quarter of tropical coasts.  But that’s just half of what it was, having shrunk due to development and pollution.

He said,

‘We have to love, to share… there is no way we can have sustainable development in the world if we cannot live together’.

His goal is to get people to change their lives, leaving smaller footprints and a more sustainable future.

‘We want everything faster. We cut the trees faster than the trees grow. We take the fish faster than they can reproduce. We send CO2 into the sky faster than the CO2 can be absorbed. If we don’t change nature is going to force us to change … We are part of the ecosystem. We have forgotten, it’s not nature on one side and man on the other side. Man is part of nature.’

Sumptuous.

Awakening to our true place in the universe: on the need to cut light pollution

Monday, November 17, 2008

Flagstaff night sky / starry starry night by MichaelPgh.uploaded to flickr by MichaelPgh

The desire and ability to dispel darkness has been one of the blessings of modernity.  It has enabled us to extend our days and pursue our interests for longer.  However, such is the disquiet that only now are concerns about the unintended consequences of our lust for light being given an airing in the likes of National Geographic magazine. The ‘peripheral glow of our prosperity’ that is light pollution has been significantly screwing up the habits and dispositions of many of our creaturely neighbours. And we are only beginning to query what it might be doing for us -

Unlike astronomers, most of us may not need an undiminished view of the night sky for our work, but like most other creatures we do need darkness. Darkness is as essential to our biological welfare, to our internal clockwork, as light itself. The regular oscillation of waking and sleep in our lives—one of our circadian rhythms—is nothing less than a biological expression of the regular oscillation of light on Earth. So fundamental are these rhythms to our being that altering them is like altering gravity.

For the past century or so, we’ve been performing an open-ended experiment on ourselves, extending the day, shortening the night, and short-circuiting the human body’s sensitive response to light. The consequences of our bright new world are more readily perceptible in less adaptable creatures living in the peripheral glow of our prosperity. But for humans, too, light pollution may take a biological toll. At least one new study has suggested a direct correlation between higher rates of breast cancer in women and the nighttime brightness of their neighborhoods.

In the end, humans are no less trapped by light pollution than the frogs in a pond near a brightly lit highway. Living in a glare of our own making, we have cut ourselves off from our evolutionary and cultural patrimony—the light of the stars and the rhythms of day and night. In a very real sense, light pollution causes us to lose sight of our true place in the universe, to forget the scale of our being, which is best measured against the dimensions of a deep night with the Milky Way—the edge of our galaxy—arching overhead.

I wrote about the need to cut light pollution, and to develop awareness of the starry sky, before.

Farce of the week: prison break out… by courier!

Saturday, November 15, 2008

From the BBC -

A manhunt is under way in western Germany for a convicted drug dealer who escaped by mailing himself out of jail.

The 42-year-old Turkish citizen – who was serving a seven-year sentence – had been making stationery with other prisoners destined for the shops.

At the end of his shift, the inmate climbed into a cardboard box and was taken out of prison by express courier. His whereabouts are still unknown.

The chief warden of the jail told the BBC this was an embarrassing incident.

To say the least.  Priceless.

Uphold democracy, prosecute Cheney and Bush

Thursday, November 13, 2008

If, like me, you appreciate the freedom that living in a democratic country affords, then you really should familiarise yourself with this well-crafted documentary: it clarifies why the Bush-Cheney administration should be prosecuted for war crimes. Via The Daily Dish.

‘When the leader sets the example, the others follow’

Monday, November 10, 2008

The most noticeable thing about this debrief, below, of the Obama Campaign Inner Circle is how calm they all are – despite one or two hours earlier having just pulled off a spectacular and world-changing win. Their conversation communicates to me a shared sense of wonder at how their campaign glided over the rocky terrain of the last twenty-one months – and how Obama knew where he was going, and how he would pitch and conduct his campaign, from the beginning.


On top of the world: Obama and global warming

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Bill McKibben, published in the Guardian, on the biggest challenge facing Obama: global warming -

[...] by every testimony, he’s one of the smartest men ever to assume high political office in this country. Not just smarter than Bush. Really smart. Smart enough, if he sits down to really understand the scale of the problem he faces, that he might decide to take the gambles that the situation requires. He said, not long ago, “under my plan of a cap-and-trade system, electricity rates would necessarily skyrocket” — which is a sign of someone who is aware there may be a reality to come to grips with.

The Restoration Begins

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

obama by kungfusoi.Uploaded to flickr by kingfusoi

From CNN’s political ticker -

During the long campaign, the timing of Obama’s entrances at rallies was meticulously coordinated – the preliminary orators (usually local government officials and candidates) spoke, the music and its pacing built up with the intention of quickening the pulses of the crowds, and then, at exactly the right moment, Obama, the candidate, would make his entrance.

But by late last night Obama was no longer a candidate, and there was no need to pump up the sense of anticipation, and the evening’s events – the concession call from John McCain, the congratulatory call from President Bush – were being dealt with as they rapidly occurred on a timetable Obama’s staff could not control. So there was some dead time in the park before Obama appeared on the stage.

And the crowd, for just those brief few moments, became all but mute. They weren’t certain what was going to happen next.

What happened next, in the crisp and clear night, was the Obama family suddenly coming into sight. Then, the cheers reached the sky. But in the quiet that preceded…

In that quiet there was the recognition:

Here comes the part of this drama that is unknown and unknowable.

Here – in the days and weeks and years ahead – comes life; here comes events that know no schedule, that can’t be planned, that will appear on no carefully constructed itinerary.

The silence from the crowd was like an intake of breath.

The silence said:

Here we are– we, the people in Grant Park; we, the people of the United States; we, the people of the world. Here we are, and none of us – not even and especially the man on the stage, the man just elected to be the 44th president – can be sure of what lies ahead.

If some in the audience – those of us in the park, and those watching around the world – sensed perhaps the slightest sliver of a subdued tone in Obama’s voice, a perceptible difference in his timbre, if not his words, from how he had sounded on the campaign trail, the shift was understandable.

It may have been his own version – intentional or involuntary – of that sudden silence that fell over the crowd. He can’t be silent, in any sense of that word – he is going to be the president. But during that same span late last night when the audience, in its brief hush, seemed to be acknowledging that everything – everything – had just changed, so, too, Obama appeared to be sending the signal, to the rest of us and maybe to himself, that he was well aware of the change, and was already beginning to deal with it.

He is no longer a candidate seeking something. Last night’s Chicago weather – so warm and inviting for November – was deceptive; it will not be warm here very much longer. Obama, of all people, knows that; he has lived in Chicago long enough to realize that balmy days with winter coming are the most predictable of teases.

The silence of the crowd ended and the roar greeted him, and as he, a man just hired for a new job, looked out at the people and at his city’s glorious skyline, you asked yourself if the thought may have been crossing his mind:

There will, in my life, be other good nights. But none of them will ever be as good as this one.


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