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.

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?

Academics launch brilliant viral tribute to Aaron Swartz

Rebel with a cause

Aaran Swartz 1986-2013

Aaran Swartz 1986-2013

It will be hard for the mainstream media to pigeonhole Aaron Swartz, the young man who committed suicide in New York on friday at the tender age of 26. Sure, he was a computer programmer and entrepreneur of sorts with serial internet start-ups under his belt – he helped develop RSS and was involved in Reddit. But these were almost incidental. He was an online activist. More than anything, he was a rebel with a cause.

Two internets

Like the Matrix, we live in a strange world of two internets. Everyone (essentially everyone) believes they can find all information on all subjects online. This is a myth. The academic sector – universities and institutes – produce most new knowledge. This new knowledge – the most reliable information we as a species have – is contained behind firewalls of the major academic publishers. With hefty fees to view each article, it is essentially only accessible to those working in academia. Worse still, the lion’s share of the sum total of human knowledge does not even appear in search engine results because it hides behind a pay wall.

On the flip side, the academics who write the papers for these journals, and act as editors and reviewers, do so for the most part unpaid. To add insult to injury, the publishers sell their products back to universities and institutes at exorbitant prices. You could say the publishers are taking the piss. But, then, the academic community is giving it away.

It gets worse. The expensive research the academics write about is largely financed by tax payers. In this surreal Monty Python-like business model, a costly product is given away for free then sold back to the producer at a sky-high fee.

Swartz felt this was just plain wrong. He was not alone. In the last few years many academics have attempted to shine a light on the scandal through the Open Access Movement and many open access journals have sprung up. Even government funding agencies in the UK and Sweden say it cannot continue and have made steps to address it. But this is a raindrop falling into the ocean of past knowledge.

In 2008, Swartz published the Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto calling for students and academics with access to these vast resources to post research papers online making them freely available. Not content with progress on Open Access, the manifesto demanded all academic information be released.

In July 2011, true to his word, in events reminiscent of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, Swartz was “indicted on federal charges of gaining illegal access to JSTOR, a subscription-only service for distributing scientific and literary journals, and downloading 4.8 million articles and documents, nearly the entire library,” according to the New York Times yesterday.

This got a troubled man into a lot of trouble and may have contributed to his suicide. As I write, three days after his death, a fitting tribute to a true visionary is drawing attention. Fed up with publishers, academics are posting research papers online and tagging them on Twitter #pdftribute. A stream has turned into a torrent. Every second dozens more tweets swamp the hashtag.

We talk endlessly about the need for humanity to find ways to navigate the Anthropocene, to develop sustainably, to change course rapidly. If reliable knowledge is kept from those who need it nothing will happen. This is a major institution that should topple.

It would be interesting to see a WikiLeaks for academia emerge.

The Anthropocene Journal would support it gladly.

Earth operating in “no analogue” state, say scientists, again

In 2001, over 1000 experts issued the Amsterdam Declaration on Global Change. The declaration gave an unequivocal warning about the risks humanity is taking with the Earth system. But how many people know about this statement?

Google “Amsterdam Declaration” and you will be spoilt for choice of conference statements.

At the top of the list is the 2002 International Humanist and Ethical Union Amsterdam Declaration. The statement outlines the fundamental principles of modern humanists.

This is followed closely by the 2010 World Congress of Information Technology’s Amsterdam Declaration which “calls on stakeholders to deliver the ambitious goals of enhancing economic growth and …consumer confidence”. And who could forget the Amsterdam Declaration on Migrant Friendly Hospitals.

In 2001, over 1000 Earth-system scientists gathered in Amsterdam for the Challenges of a Changing Earth: Global Change Open Science Conference. At the end of the conference the organizers issued, you guessed it, another Amsterdam Declaration.

It is a curious statement. The title gives nothing away. Bland and bureaucratic at first, it builds to say something quite staggeringly profound and urgent about the risk of destabilizing the Earth system and the need for a planetary management approach the authors call planetary stewardship.

Halfway through we discover the declaration is ultimately for the “people of the world”.

The declaration peters out towards the end, “Dialogues are increasing between the scientific community and policymakers at a number of levels. Action is required to formalise, consolidate and strengthen the initiatives being developed.”

The 2012 Planet Under Pressure conference is the largest gathering of global change scientists since 2001. As we gear up for it, here is the full text of the 2001 declaration.

The Amsterdam Declaration

The scientific communities of four international global change research programmes – the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP), the International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change (IHDP), the World Climate Research Programme (WCRP) and the international biodiversity programme DIVERSITAS – recognise that, in addition to the threat of significant climate change, there is growing concern over the ever-increasing human modification of other aspects of the global environment and the consequent implications for human well-being. Basic goods and services supplied by the planetary life support system, such as food, water, clean air and an environment conducive to human health, are being affected increasingly by global change.

Research carried out over the past decade under the auspices of the four programmes to address these concerns has shown that:

  • The Earth System behaves as a single, self-regulating system comprised of physical, chemical, biological and human components. The interactions and feedbacks between the component parts are complex and exhibit multi-scale temporal and spatial variability. The understanding of the natural dynamics of the Earth System has advanced greatly in recent years and provides a sound basis for evaluating the effects and consequences of human-driven change.
  • Human activities are significantly influencing Earth’s environment in many ways in addition to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. Anthropogenic changes to Earth’s land surface, oceans, coasts and atmosphere and to biological diversity, the water cycle and biogeochemical cycles are clearly identifiable beyond natural variability. They are equal to some of the great forces of nature in their extent and impact. Many are accelerating. Global change is real and is happening now.
  • Global change cannot be understood in terms of a simple cause-effect paradigm. Human-driven changes cause multiple effects that cascade through the Earth System in complex ways. These effects interact with each other and with local- and regional-scale changes in multidimensional patterns that are difficult to understand and even more difficult to predict. Surprises abound.
  • Earth System dynamics are characterised by critical thresholds and abrupt changes. Human activities could inadvertently trigger such changes with severe consequences for Earth’s environment and inhabitants. The Earth System has operated in different states over the last half million years, with abrupt transitions (a decade or less) sometimes occurring between them. Human activities have the potential to switch the Earth System to alternative modes of operation that may prove irreversible and less hospitable to humans and other life. The probability of a human-driven abrupt change in Earth’s environment has yet to be quantified but is not negligible.
  • In terms of some key environmental parameters, the Earth System has moved well outside the range of the natural variability exhibited over the last half million years at least. The nature of changes now occurring simultaneously in the Earth System, their magnitudes and rates of change are unprecedented. The Earth is currently operating in a no-analogue state.

On this basis the international global change programmes urge governments, public and private institutions and people of the world to agree that:

  • An ethical framework for global stewardship and strategies for Earth System management are urgently needed. The accelerating human transformation of the Earth’s environment is not sustainable. Therefore, the business-as-usual way of dealing with the Earth System is not an option. It has to be replaced – as soon as possible – by deliberate strategies of good management that sustain the Earth’s environment while meeting social and economic development objectives.
  • A new system of global environmental science is required. This is beginning to evolve from complementary approaches of the international global change research programmes and needs strengthening and further development. It will draw strongly on the existing and expanding disciplinary base of global change science; integrate across disciplines, environment and development issues and the natural and social sciences; collaborate across national boundaries on the basis of shared and secure infrastructure; intensify efforts to enable the full involvement of developing country scientists; and employ the complementary strengths of nations and regions to build an efficient international system of global environmental science.

The global change programmes are committed to working closely with other sectors of society and across all nations and cultures to meet the challenge of a changing Earth. New partnerships are forming among university, industrial and governmental research institutions. Dialogues are increasing between the scientific community and policymakers at a number of levels. Action is required to formalise, consolidate and strengthen the initiatives being developed. The common goal must be to develop the essential knowledge base needed to respond effectively and quickly to the great challenge of global change.

Berrien Moore III Arild Underdal Peter Lemke Michel Loreau

Chair, IGBP Chair, IHDP Chair, WCRP Co-Chair DIVERSITAS

Amsterdam, The Netherlands 13 July 2001