Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Delivering The New Green Economy

There is much talk in and on the air about whether the various economic stimulus plans being discussed and deployed around the world will work. Many of the plans have some sections devoted to greening the economy, for instance promoting more energy efficiency, less waste, and the generation of more renewable energy.

It has been pointed out that to a considerable extent policymakers and economists are flying blind in what a British minister - a close ally of the prime minister - has recently called the worst recession in more than a century, surpassing even the Great Depression. It certainly feels very hard to know what, if anything, will successfully get a nation or the world out of this self-induced catastrophe.

What all of the stimulus plans have in common is that they all desperately want to create jobs. Undoubtedly, if enough money is spent in the right ways then jobs will be created. Whether they will be enduring jobs is another and very important matter, but it is not the point of this piece. In the short run, then, we'll be able to measure the success of job creation quite simply by following the statistics on employment issued by nations. What is much harder to measure is how effective any of the 'green' measures will have been.

The problem comes in at least three parts: despite years of effort, it has proven difficult both to develop and to deliver green programs and policies and to measure their outcomes. If social scientists like Tim Jackson and Doug McKenzie-Mohr are right, there is something quite simple that we can start doing about this suite of problems, and if we don't, it is quite likely that we'll get the same dismal results that many others have had when they have tried to green the economy or even just small parts of it.

There is a lot of literature from social psychologists going back more than thirty years about how individuals and groups react to different methods of 'green' persuasion. Some techniques are quite effective and other techniques are so ineffective that they make a bad situation worse. For instance, just giving people more information, which is the most common strategy employed by both government and many green groups, very often falls into the latter category.

To illustrate this, researchers in Canada took two groups of householders and gave one group information about the benefits and financial savings to their community of watering their lawns less while the other group were much more actively coached and helped in how to reduce their water usage. The second group cut their lawn water usage by more than half. The first group actually increased their lawn watering.

This reaction is not an anomaly - there is increasing evidence that citizens and consumers become confused when bombarded with too much information, and their confusion may easily lead them to turn away from engagement in annoyance or become paralysed into gloomy inaction.

In another unfortunate example, a California energy utility spent more money on advertising the virtues of energy efficiency than it would have taken to have simply insulated the houses whose owners were being targeted. More widely, utilities spend billions of dollars on information programs which may well be a near complete waste of money.

Research shows that human actions, especially habitual ones, are very complex in their causes and pathways, and are very difficult to change. But there are some known techniques which work much better than others - the Canadian example given is not an isolated one-off. The real problem is that policy-makers, program planners and business leaders seem not to know about this important body of work.

With trillions of dollars about to be spent globally, at least in part aimed at developing a sustainable future, the research work on what policies deliver results and which tend to fail needs to be discovered and taken notice of urgently. If not, this possibly unique opportunity to deliver a more sustainable economy, may be still born.

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