Green by default

What if the default option for energy supply was renewable?

Tension is building between Google and me. Google would rather I didn’t use its “incognito” setting regularly. It absolutely will not allow me to set it as a default. Conversely, I don’t want to tell Google that I am shopping for a pair of shoes, or, incidentally, my foot fetish, not least because I don’t want ads for thigh-high leather boots appearing on every site I visit.

Google doesn’t want to give the impression it’s interfering with the personal freedoms of its users. But at the same time the search giant practices modern-day alchemy. All this data can be turned into oceans of money – it pays for Google to be cagey about defaults

In behavioural economics the “default” is a classic nudge. There are plenty of others. The status quo bias – people tend to avoid change. Anchoring. If a charity suggests a donation size of $10 dollars, donations will pour in around this figure. The same applies to estate agents and house prices. Loss aversion is another nudge. We value losing something twice as highly as gaining something. If you want to convince people to buy a new fridge tell them they’re losing $100 a year with their old fridge. Nudges encourage a particular behaviour without constraining options. While businesses have been quick to adopt nudging it has been applied less systematically in policy.

The concept broke into the mainstream in 2008 when two American academics Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein published Nudge: improving decisions about health, wealth and happiness. (There’s a good summary here.)

On the back of his research, Sunstein ran Barack Obama’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, which reviews federal agency regulations relating to finances and Medicare for example. Earlier this week, Sunstein, a tall and quietly spoken, spoke at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences as part of an event on green nudging – how a nudge philosophy can be employed to encourage cleaner, greener living. His lecture took us on a whirlwind ride through examples of recent policy nudges and the underlying psychology behind them.

Cass Sunstein with Barack Obama – credit: White House

Cass Sunstein with Barack Obama – credit: White House

The right to be wrong

Nudging has been attacked in some quarters. Some argue it interferes with individual freedoms and personal choice. Sunstein counters this saying a nudge is good if it promotes human welfare. This is supported by recent research (Warning: you are about to be nudged) that indicates, when it comes to defaults at least, people don’t mind being nudged whether they know about it in advance or after the fact. Perhaps this research can act like a nudge to governments to pay more attention to this technique as a policy instrument.

More to the point, those that attack nudging must ignore the staggering corporate advertising budget of over $500 billion a year globally. While freedom of choice – or something masquerading as it – is maintained in the free market, corporate greed drives subtle nudges, like positioning of candy in supermarkets close to check-outs, not human welfare.

Wielding influence

Intellectually Sunstein’s book is closely related to Robert Cialdini’s Influence first published in 1984. Cialdini challenges the economist Adam Smith’s notion of a “rational actor model” of human behaviour. Choosing is complex and fraught. Marketeers prey on weak and vulnerable – all of us.

Cialdini revealed six “weapons of influence”. First, we feel obliged to reciprocate. If someone does us a small favour, we try to repay it, usually with something slightly larger. Second, we want to stick with commitments and be seen to be consistent. Third, we tend to go along with suggestions from people we know. Fourth, we tend to believe what our friends and family believe. Fifth, we tend to respect authority. Finally, we value things that seem scarce – sales are always “ending soon”.

Thinking fast and slow

Both Cialdini and Thaler and Sunstein owe a debt to the grandfathers of behavioural economics Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow argues humans have two distinct thinking modes: System 1 and System 2. System 1 operates on the fly through a series of short cuts and rules of thumb. It doesn’t dwell, it doesn’t ponder, it relies on gut instinct. But we all know what guts are filled with. System 2 is slow and cumbersome. It does the heavy intellectual lifting. As a rule, we try to short circuit System 2, only activating it if absolutely necessary. This may explain why logic doesn’t always play such a significant role when we make decisions. More to the point advertisers and marketeers can exploit this knowledge to force us to part with our cash. Academia is playing catch up. While Kahneman and Tversky were developing their theories in the sixties and seventies, since the fifties large corporations were applying identical ideas with increasing sophistication.

So successful are corporations at manipulation that, when it comes to pushing for sustainable consumption, the economist Pavan Sukhdev wrote in the influential academic journal Nature, “Consumerism is often blamed, and consumers can indeed make crucial choices on the basis of how much material and energy is used for making, packaging and transporting goods. But on this road of economic choices, it is corporations, not consumers, in the driver’s seat, and they are driving us in the wrong direction. Corporate advertising converts our insecurities into a chain of wants, needs and excessive demands, which have made our ecological footprint exceed the planet’s ability to produce resources and absorb emissions.”

The Green Nudge

Personal choice is an essential ingredient of human dignity. This poses a specific challenge for weaning ourselves off fossil fuels and other unsustainable behaviour. The Green Nudge event at the Royal Swedish Academy set out to explore how societies could nudge themselves out of their complacency and towards green choices. The underlying principle is that good “choice architecture” – gentle nudges – could replace heavy-handed regulations at least partially if not completely.

The “default” has potential. What if power suppliers were mandated to offer renewable energy as the default option? People tend to be loss averse and prefer the status quo. Sunstein used the fact that golfers pot better for par than for a birdie – people really hate losses – to empahsise the point. When it comes to a renewable default, people might rationalise staying with green energy rather than moving to a slightly cheaper supply by saying “I don’t want to lose out on clean air and a good environment”. The reference point – another classic nudge – also comes in to play. The current default encourages the thinking: “I don’t want to lose money.”

Another classic nudge is feedback. Simply giving people easy and instant access to the costs or implication of their behaviour can change it. The warnings on cigarette packages is one such nudge. A visible electricity or water meter clearly identifying financial cost has been shown to drive down electrical or water consumption drastically.

On another level, in the US, simply mandating that corporations disclose inventories of the toxic chemicals they store or have released to the environment has spurred a fall in releases.

You can try this at home

Nudging is not just for the professionals. On Friday, the US online magazine Slate ran this story: Finally, a website that uses math to make your difficult decisions for you. The website in question Something Pop helps people make big life-changing decisions on which city to move to, which job to take, which apartment to rent. The trouble is, the site’s default priority list for each life decision takes no account of the environment. Adding a priority related to reducing carbon emissions would be a default nudge. I tweeted Ben Gimpert and emailed Kate Elswit, the two site creators, and they both agreed, responding pretty much instantly saying they’d put it on the list to include in the next update. Nudge accomplished. But none of this solves my Google fetish problem.

The event at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences was introduced by Gunhild Stordalen the founder of the Norwegian organisation GreenNudge.

The early Anthropocene paradox

In this eight-minute speech, US academic Noam Chomsky articulates one of the most remarkable paradoxes in the early Anthropocene (28 April, Annual Pen World of Voices Festival).

“There are some that are devoting serious efforts to avert impending doom. In the lead are the most oppressed segments of the global population, those considered to be the most backward and primitive, the indigenous societies of the world. In countries with influential indigenous populations like Bolivia and Ecuador there is now legislative recognition of the rights of nature.

In sharp contrast, the race towards the cliff is led by the most advanced, educated, wealthy and privileged societies in the world, primarily in North America.”

Google to power Botswana

Headlines I’d love to read


This week Google announced it was investing $100 million in a project to install and lease solar systems to homeowners in the US.

The deal with the Sun Power Corporation, which also throws $150 million into the pot, makes it easier for people to switch to renewable energy and save money. The web blurb gushes: “Using the fund we buy the solar panel systems. Then we lease them to homeowners at a cost that’s typically lower than their normal electricity bill. So by participating in this program, you don’t just help the environment—you can also save money.”

Google is a company with a heart and an embarrassingly huge wad of cash. The internet giant has already committed over $1 billion to wind and solar projects.

As it explains on its website, this is enough to power 500,000 US homes for one year. Or, a car to travel around the world 190,000 times. Or, 70 billion episodes of your favourite TV show. Or, the Sydney Opera House for 312 years.

Yes, Google. Or Botswana.

Botswana is in dire straits. The lights are going out. The nation with more sun than you could shake a stick at imports much of its energy from South Africa. And this is dirty energy from coal-fired power stations. But South Africa’s appetite for electricity has grown and now it has little to spare.

Botswana knew this day was coming but failed to prepare adequately — its single power station is beset with technical calamities. Now, the lights in the capital Gabarone have begun to go out. Homes, businesses, government offices, universities have endured regular blackouts. The management team at the Botswana Power Corporation has been axed. Irish contractor the Electricity Supply Board International is taking over to sort out the mess.

Botswana needs to become energy self sufficient. The priority for Botswana is energy access to relieve grinding poverty and allow the country to develop.Its vast coal reserves will last decades making coal the prime solution. Climate change is a low priority. This is entirely justified given the country’s paltry emission rates compared with the US. But the strategy does not entirely make sense, not least because, while coal may not run out any time soon, the sun, like Botswana’s diamonds, is forever. Besides solar is perfectly suited to low energy usage.

Many in Botswana have no power or rely on oil generators. To deliver energy for all, Botswana not only needs a reliable power supply it needs an updated national grid network. Solar power could bypass all of this. The levels of investment Google is capable of make it a game changer. But things need to happen fast or Botswana will be locked into a coal-driven future. Luckily, Google is no slouch when it comes to delivering on grand visions.

This would also tie in with one of Google’s other plans. Botswana has limited internet access and Google wants to bring broadband to the rest of the world. If Google can deliver sustainable energy to Botswana, it can at the same time build the infrastructure for reliable internet connectivity opening up a whole new market.

Google, make the next $1 billion in Africa.

And finally, the Wall Street Journal recently published this graphic communicating the power imbalance between the US and Africa. For example, Montana with a population of one million has the same power generating capacity of Nigeria – population 174 million.


Everything is awesome


The Lego Movie is this generation’s Animal Farm: an allegorical tale ostensibly for children but in reality a clever polemic railing against corporate greed, globalization and general maleficence, and…er…produced by a large corporation.

The Lego Movie opens on a dark and dreary dystopian future. “Another Brick in the Wall” booms out over a concrete wasteland. The rain pelts down.

Not really. Everything is literally awesome. The film explodes to life with a thumping great bubblegum-laced-with-ecstasy pop classic that builds insanely quickly to the immortal chorus: “Everything is awesome.” Repeat to fade.

The inhabitants of Lego world are totally pumped. All the time. It’s the law. “Everything is Awesome, when you’re living our dream,” says the song.

But the veneer is gossamer thin. In this world, hero Emmet follows a manual to be “happy”, have “friends” and be part of the “team”. Conformity isn’t just expected: it’s mandatory. Lego surveillance cameras capture everything. Anything deemed “weird” is destroyed.

In a coffee chain, a barista hands Emmet his coffee. With monumental irony deficiency Emmet fires back: “Over-priced coffee. AWESOME!”

Emmet does not need more caffeine.

It becomes apparent the proles in this world are not living the dream, they are living in the United States of Unconsciousness, their minds controlled by Lord Business. Lord Business has manufactured a culture of consumption and uniformity to create a feedback loop that endlessly fills his coffers. Worse still, “Lord Business plans to end the world as we know it.” Cue megalomaniacal laughter.

The Lego Movie works as a strange hybrid between two George Orwell novels, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty Four. Orwell’s masterpieces focussed on the dangers of fictitious totalitarian regimes, based on the Soviet Union. The makers of this new postmodern masterpiece, however, save their vitriol for the colossal corporations bestriding Earth whose weapons of thought control range from powerful marketing and advertising techniques targeting our weaknesses, to buying the media and paying off politicians.

At its core, the film questions what it means to live in a capitalist society. It attempts to examine what we have given up to live in this world, how the public are cynically manipulated, and what Noam Chomsky describes as the manufacture of consent. What makes this all the more beguiling is that the film has been made by the world’s second largest toy manufacturer and is, essentially, a feature-length advert. Go figure.

Anyway, the kids loved it too. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Everything is indeed awesome.


Everything is Awesome lyrics

(Composers: Tegan & Sara, the Lonely Island and Mark Mothersbaugh)

Everything is awesome

Everything is cool when you’re part of a team

Everything is awesome, when we’re living our dream

Everything is better when we stick together
Side by side, you and I gonna win forever, let’s party forever
We’re the same, I’m like you, you’re like me, we’re all working in harmony

Everything is awesome
Everything is cool when you’re part of a team
Everything is awesome, when we’re living our dream

3, 2, 1. GO

Have you heard the news, everyone’s talking
Life is good ‘cause everything’s awesome
Lost my job, it’s a new opportunity
More free time for my awesome community

I feel more awesome than an awesome opossum
Dip my body in chocolate frostin’
Three years later, washed out the frostin’
Smellin’ like a blossom, everything is awesome
Stepped in mud, got new brown shoes
It’s awesome to win, and it’s awesome to lose (it’s awesome to lose)

Everything is better when we stick together
Side by side, you and I, gonna win forever, let’s party forever
We’re the same, I’m like you, you’re like me, we’re all working in harmony

Everything is awesome
Everything is cool when you’re part of a team
Everything is awesome, when we’re living our dream

Blue skies, bouncy springs
We just named you awesome things
A nobel prize, a piece of string
You know what’s awesome, EVERYTHING

Dogs and fleas, allergies, a book of Greek antiquities
Brand new pants, a very old vest
Awesome items are the best

Trees, frogs, clogs
They’re awesome
Rocks, clocks, and socks
They’re awesome
Figs, and jigs, and twigs
That’s awesome
Everything you see, or think, or say
Is awesome

Everything is awesome
Everything is cool when you’re part of a team
Everything is awesome, when we’re living our dream

Striking distance



Between 2000 and 2013, a global network of sensors recorded 26 major asteroid explosions in Earth’s atmosphere. Felix Pharand Deschenes created this useful infographic for the B612 Foundation to plot the size and location of each asteroid when it struck Earth’s atmosphere. The city of Chelyabinsk Oblast in Russia narrowly escaped disaster when the largest asteroid in this time screamed overhead on 15 February 2013 but causing some injuries.

Climate change data visualization launched

Félix Pharand-Deschênes and I have just produced a new data visualization on climate change for the UN’s climate negotiations taking place in Warsaw, Poland right now. It was commissioned by the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme and funded by the UN Foundation.

The visualization is a summary of the findings presented in the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (Working Group I, Summary for Policymakers, the Physical Science Basis).

The wonderful Gizmodo has covered it in its own inimitable style. In the article I try to explain what we were attempting to do. We wanted to find a way of communicating climate risks in a way that showed exactly what climate scientists mean when they say likely or unlikely. While the terminology used by researchers can sound a little vague, it is more precise than most people realize.

It was important for us to try to find a way of simplifying the complexity of fossil-fuel emissions, temperature rise and future carbon budgets to keep within policy targets. The ending is a little bleak: societies are running out of time, and running in the wrong direction. Sorry.

Being Russell Brand


Has Noam Chomsky found a portal into Brand’s brain and wrested (occasional) control?

Several recent interviews with TV host and comedian Russell Brand have taken a strange turn.His usual schtick revolving around his sexual antics and observations on pop culture has always been peppered with sharp political and cultural satire. But the balance has shifted. Gone are the anal sex gags (well, not quite). In its place comes a new obsession with the dark underbelly of the mainstream media. In an interview this week with the BBC’s Jeremy Paxman, Brand went further, making an extraordinary call for a global revolution to oust who he sees as a parasitic and corrupt global elite.

Like the film Being John Malkovich, it is as if Noam Chomsky has sought control of the Brand host and is now wrestling with the levers. A sentence that begins with a recount of Brand’s former addiction to heroin is now likely to segue into an attack on the media’s obsession with celebrity to finish with a direct reference to “the manufacture of consent”. I expect Chomsky is wandering, disoriented, on the verge of the New Jersey turnpike at this very moment.

New Jersey turnpike

New Jersey turnpike

Chomsky’s strategy is brilliant. For decades he’s treaded the margins of the media, ignored by the mainstream press and TV. His ideas have never been exposed to the masses. Now, through the Brand host, Chomsky is mainlining his messages into the filthy heart of the beast.

The mainstream media is utterly baffled.Watch this now infamous interview with the Brand host on US breakfast show Morning Joe. On live TV he deconstructs the charade of US news shows while the show’s anchor attempts, and fails, to retain her dignity and reputation. The interview begins to get ugly when all efforts by the Brand host to chat about anything on a level above superficiality — clothes, hair, beard, sex — are met with blank stares and clever navigation back to — clothes, hair, beard, sex. This occurs even though the Brand host was invited on to discuss his new show “Messiah Complex”, a global tour that tackles religion and religious leaders.

With both the Morning Joe and the Paxman interviews the cameras capture the moment Chomsky enters the Brand portal and pops into his consciousness. A glint appears in the Brand host’s eye before a monumental battle ensues as Brand attempts to articulate complex sociological and political ideas, which seem to be forming before both the viewer’s eyes, and Brand’s own. All the while, the Brand host manages to keep up a steady stream of lewd and lascivious patter.

Brand is clever. On TV he always appears the brightest person in the room. Of course, this is not hard when most rooms you walk into are full of morons — in the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king. He is über-sharp, curious and engaged. He reminds me in some ways of Bono. When Bono was asked why he does all the extra stuff beyond the Rock God thing, he replied with a rugby metaphor. He said it was like he had been passed the ball and now he just wanted to hold tight and run as far as possible until someone brings him down.

But when Brand talks about revolution and the end of the old world order he is wrong to dismiss democracy (He told Paxman he had never voted). As Winston Churchill said, democracy is the worst form of governance apart from all the others. Or, put another way, Homer Simpson once said that alcohol was the cause and the solution to all our problems. If Homer swapped “alcohol” for “democracy” he’d be closer to the truth.

Brand argues that we are destroying the planet while the rich get richer. He argues, rightly, that corporations dominate political decisionmaking and that this is accelerating inequalities and environmental destruction (See this interview with academic Richard Wilkinson on global sustainability and inequality). Meanwhile, the media, resting in the palm of the corporations, ensure the public remains in the United States of Unconsciousness. But while this line has merit it is only half the story. Democracy is failing because democracy stops at national borders and corporations do not. That needs to change. Maybe we do need a revolution. The revolution is in our mindset: we are all citizens of the world and we need to vote on that basis from now on. That is the new world order. Is that worth voting for, Russell?

This article first appeared in Medium.

The Brand portal?

The Brand portal?

How many children can we save in 15 years?


Bill Gates tweeted this a few days back. I think this is the most incredible, inspirational graph I’ve seen in a long while. It is almost like a call to arms. But the starting point, 2015, is a little daunting. We are two years away, how can we divert from “business as usual” so quickly in order to save more than one million young lives? Yet is there anything else in this world that is more important?

Urbanization in the Anthropocene

We live in a rapidly urbanizing world. But some of the world’s most biodiverse hotspots are adjacent to urban areas. This incredible data visualization from Felix Pharand Deschenes and the Stockholm Resilience Centre captures the scale of the problem, and how to solve it. In three minutes. (I get a credit at the end for my very minor role – I’m very proud to be associated with it.)