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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
A growing number of artists are turning to the Anthropocene for inspiration. Here, I’ve brought together several artists who explicitly reference the concept for the first online Anthropocene Exhibition.
All images kindly reproduced with the permission of the artists.
Some years ago, a celebrity chef in the UK proclaimed cooking had attained the status of high art. Art critic Brian Sewell quipped that the day a Michelin-starred meal could be described as “profoundly disturbing” was the day these chefs could call themselves artists. Sewell was right to ridicule. Art has an emotional impact like no other.
Among many other things. the concept of the Anthropocene is profoundly disturbing. If the Anthropocene was simply a matter of geological classification it would remain hidden in a distant corner of dusty academia. Instead, the word captures who we are. It captures how far we have come. It separates us from all previous generations. It helps us make sense of our world and our new responsibility. The concept is beyond geological hair-splitting. Artists have struck a rich vein.
Not all the artists here would describe themselves as artists.
Félix Pharand-Deschênes is an anthropologist and data visualizer living in Canada. He is founder of Globaïa. (Felix is also a close collaborator and friend of the author.)
David Thomas Smith
Jason de Caires Taylor is based in Cancun, Mexico and combines diving with sculpture. The sculptures pictured here have been designed to be assimilated into the environment and will eventually promote coral reef growth and so challenging the viewer to see the positive attributes in humanity’s creativity in the Anthropocene. More.
Radhika Gupta is a recent graduate in design from the Lasalle College of the Arts, Singapore, and is based in India. More.
John Stockton is an artist based in Nottingham, England. The images above come from his “Cartritus” collection. They are formed from objects found on roadside verges that have been discarded, ejected or otherwise fallen off cars and other vehicles. More.
NASA’s LandSat Earth as Art courtesy of the US Geological Survey.
On 23 May, I received a curious email from my colleague Felix Pharand Deschenes, a Canadian anthropologist.
He told me I needed to get hold of a copy of Inferno, the latest Dan Brown thriller, published 14 May. The book, about a deadly plot to create a new plague to solve over population, contained a curious graph ostensibly from the World Health Organization (WHO) – or at least a fictional version of WHO.
The graph – really a composite of many graphs – depicts the incredible acceleration in human activity starting around 1950 and the knock-on impact on the Earth system.
What is striking is that the graph looks uncannily like the Great Acceleration graphs published by the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP) in 2004 in its synthesis Global Change and the Earth System. See below.
It is possible the WHO has used the IGBP graphs in a publication, or even developed these independently – I’m going to check with WHO. But the appearance in the book is intriguing. Even the titles of each graph reflect the original Great Acceleration graphs.
“The problems that exist in the world today cannot be solved by the level of thinking that created them,” Albert Einstein.
This week, a bunch of us published an article in the international journal Nature entitled Sustainable development goals for people and planet.
We argued that if nations are to set sustainable development goals they need to take a systems approach otherwise the goals will be a patchwork of good causes that ultimately fail on long-term global sustainability. We proposed six goals. But on the way we ended up questioning some of the key tenets of sustainable development.
Our article picked up a bit of media coverage.
- Nations urged to combine environmental and development goals. The Guardian (John Vidal)
- Ending Poverty Requires Tougher Environmental Goals, Scientists Argue. Huffington Post (Alister Doyle)
- Scientists Propose a New Architecture for Sustainable Development. New York Times (Andrew C. Revkin)
Skip to the sub-heading “six goals for people and planet” if you just want the interesting bit.
New “universal” goals
The idea for a set of universal sustainable development goals (SDGs) came about at last years UN Rio+20 summit. Columbia and Guatemala jointly proposed that nations adopt a set of goals to shift the world onto a more sustainable footing. This gained rapid momentum.
In any sane world SDGs would begin in 2015 when the highly influential Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) run out. This is far from certain. Not least because in 2010 the UN created a political process called the MDG post 2015 development agenda that kind of does but kind of doesn’t link to SDGs. Are you still awake? Stay with me. I promise this gets better.
The MDGs have had some considerable successes. Three goals were met before the deadline. The target of reducing extreme poverty by half was reached five years ahead of schedule. So too was the the target of halving the proportion of people lacking reliable access to drinking water. Conditions have improved for more than 200 million people living in slums — double the 2020 target (2012 UN report). But the goals were not universal, they applied directly to developing nations.
Given the power of the MDGs to channel money and political will, interest in SDGs is growing. Last week, the UN held a meeting in New York involving 30 nations to discuss goals. This was followed by a meeting of experts and scientists to brainstorm ideas . Four of our team joined this discussion. Lead author Dave Griggs gave the keynote talk (UN video here).
The SDGs are important because they have the potential to help reshape the global social and economic playing field to allow a population — set to stabilise at between nine and ten billion – to thrive and prosper without it costing the Earth.
So, how do you devise such a set of goals that genuinely add up to global sustainability rather than just pulling together a bundle of big issues and hope for the best.
This calls for rethinking sustainable development for the Anthropocene.
First, we looked at how to formulate new goals from a complex systems perspective. We began to realise that the entire sustainable development paradigm needed re-evaluation from this viewpoint.
Bye, bye three pillars
For many years the overarching paradigm has been the three pillars of sustainable development – economy, society, environment. This has led to disconnected, fragmented political efforts often in conflict with one another. Besides, while the economy can expand and contract, we only have one planet: the environment cannot grow. This paradigm is obsolete.
We argued that in the Anthropocene – where humanity is the prime driver of change on a global scale – it makes more sense to conceptualise sustainable development as the economy within society within Earth’s life support system – the atmosphere and ice sheets, oceans and waterways, forests, deserts and rich diversity of life that combine to provide a place for us to thrive. We have reached a point at which future development is at risk if we fail to account for our pressure on the Earth system.
So ending poverty and improving human wellbeing may remain the number one priority, but this must be achieved with awareness of our significant impact on Earth’s biological, chemical and physical processes and cycles.
We were not the first to propose this idea, but we are arguing that now is the time to adopt it and say adios to the pillars.
A new definition
Looked through this lens, the definition of sustainable development put forward by the Brundtland commission in 1987 also needs updating. The commission defined it as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
This is good. But given very real risks to Earth-system stability, a more appropriate definition may be:
“development that meets the needs of the present while safeguarding Earth’s life-support system, on which the welfare of current and future generations depend.”
From this foundation we identified a set of planetary “must haves” for a global population to thrive and prosper: climatic stability, biodiversity, ecosystem services, a healthy water cycle, effective use of nitrogen and phosphorus, clean air, and sustainable resource use. We called these “must haves” the global sustainability objectives.
Add to this updated and expanded MDGs based on ending poverty and hunger, better education, health, equality, and higher quality of life and you have the foundation of a set of cross-cutting targets for the SDGs.
The next challenge was identifying goals that do not end up with a false opposition between improving lives and planetary protection. Invoking the 1948 United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and the Millennium Declaration, the essentials for human wellbeing can be boiled down to: thriving lives and livelihoods, access to sustainable food, water and energy and living within a thriving, healthy ecosystem. All this requires effective governance to change the playing field we are operating within.
6 goals for people and planet – the “wheel of fortune”
So the goals become:
Within Goal 1 for example – lives and livelihoods – we include targets for ending poverty, improving the lives of those living in slums, health, equality and gainful employment, all linked to sustainable consumption and production patterns and sustainable cities.
Within goal 2, food security would also consider greenhouse gas emissions and excess fertilizer use, for example.
Basically, the trick is to create a suite of measurable targets within each goal that reach economic, social and environmental objectives. We made a provisional stab at some of these targets – mainly within the Earth-system domain. But this will require more work with a much broader group of experts. What we wanted to do was show that it was possible to take a systems approach and that the result is viable, on paper at least.
A unified framework
Taken together, we end up with a unified framework for sustainable development goals that bring together two priorities: poverty eradication and Earth-system stability.
A further mapping of the new goals (below) against updated and expanded MDGs and our planetary “must haves” shows how this set of goals ticks all the boxes – well most of them – and helps avoid conflicts between targets.
Goals for all
In the figure above we also show that the goals lead naturally to a policy framework. Much of our proposal is already covered by existing agreements or conventions internationally. But the key is to create something that has buy in at all levels. For SDGs to work in a globally networked society they must be adopted by international organizations, nations, states, cities and towns. More than that, businesses, schools, families and individuals must say “this is the world I want to live in”.
Ultimately, the choice of goals is a political decision. Science, though, has a role in ensuring the goals are achievable.
Counting angels on pinheads
Medieval scholars were sometimes accused of expending intellectual effort debating issues of no practical significance such as estimating the number of angels that could dance on a pinhead. I had a lengthy discussion with an editor at Nature towards the end of the process to publication of our paper. She questioned whether our work could be considered in the same way. Is it not all hot air of interest only to international policy wonks?
Whatever way you look at it the MDGs had a major impact. So much so that many nations and people like Bill Gates are reluctant to tamper too much with them. They successfully diverted a lot of financial resources and political will towards specific priority areas, often to the detriment of other worthy causes.
This is why the stakes for SDGs are so high. Like MDGs, no global legal agreement was necessary to implement them. Nations made commitments and chose themselves how to meet them. This has a much bigger chance of success in the short-run than a single binding international agreement that would take decades to negotiate.
A prerequisite for future development will be a life-support system able to sustain a global civilization. Our life-support system is changing rapidly and in an uncontrolled way. Further interference risks overturning development gains in the last two decades. Last week’s UN 2013 Human Development Report outlined environmental disaster scenarios that could lead to three billion more people living in extreme poverty by 2050.
We have some opportunities to avoid this fate. It is all in our hands. This is the new reality. Welcome to the Anthropocene.Nature 495, 305–307 (21 March 2013) doi:10.1038/495305a Policy: Sustainable development goals for people and planet. Authors: David Griggs, Mark Stafford-Smith, Owen Gaffney, Johan Rockström, Marcus C. Öhman Priya Shyamsundar, Will Steffen, Gisbert Glaser, Norichika Kanie, Ian Noble
Remarkable short film of a Chinese construction firm building a 30 storey hotel in 15 days
Rebel with a cause
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.
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.
They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. It is wonderful, then, to end the first year of the Anthropocene Journal with news that it has already spawned several imitators. In 2013, two publishers plan to launch Anthropocene journals. Academic publishing behemoth Elsevier unleashes the first issue of Anthropocene. Meanwhile, in July 2013 BioOne and several universities launch a new open-access journal, Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene.
I wish both journals well. Except Elsevier’s on principle. Elsevier’s approach to publishing is parasitic opportunism. It exploits well-meaning academics working freely as editors yet adds little value itself then brazenly sells the product back to the academic community. This brilliant business model generates mind-boggling profits. And must end.
New Year’s Resolution: open access of all for all.