Environmentalism in the Age of Trump

Many of us are concerned about the implications of last November’s election for environmental protection, and with good reason. Donald Trump has called for shrinking the EPA and removing its teeth by making it mainly “advisory” and has successfully installed Scott Pruitt, a climate change denialist and long time adversary of the EPA, as its head. There have also been calls for a massive rollback of environmental regulations, a dismantling of the Clean Power Plan, an opening up of even more federal lands for oil and gas extraction, and US withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement (which may take the form of a refusal to live up to the commitments we made as a nation). Environmentalists may soon be struggling simply to prevent erosion of the Federal framework that protects air, water, wildlife, natural areas and human well-being — while new environmental initiatives stall.

How can we hold the line on protections for the environment in this new political climate? First we have to understand the root causes of environmental impact, and then we have to figure out how to address them without much help from the federal government.

Environmental impact is the result of human decisions, and human decisions are influenced in complex ways by a number of factors. Some decisions are entirely rational, the result of careful consideration of evidence and the application of logic. But — as Dan Ariely has noted — most decisions are “predictably irrational,” because all humans are hard-wired with cognitive biases and emotional responses that strongly influence decision-making.

To protect the environment, we will need to communicate facts and science much more effectively, generate enough passion to motivate people to act on this information, and implement strategies that nudge people to take actions that will improve environmental quality even as politicians seek to undermine existing protections. Success will depend on understanding why people do the things they do, and then using that understanding to influence decisions and behavior.

Fortunately, scientists (and marketers) have been studying this for years, resulting in important insights into how people process information and make decisions. The group of scientific disciplines devoted to nurturing this understanding is called behavioral science.

The application of behavioral science is nothing new. We experience it every day when we see ads on TV or on our computers, drive past billboards, or walk through department stores and end up choosing one of a myriad of options, often for reasons other than pure logic. Much marketing is carefully designed to exploit our cognitive biases and influence our decision-making (both conscious and sub-conscious). We are often persuaded to consume more because impulse buy items are placed strategically at check out, or because products are described or depicted in a way that triggers an emotional response.

The application of insights from behavioral science to environmental protection is relatively new, but the fundamentals are the same. Behavioral science has been used to craft successful campaigns for environmental causes and public health, like reducing litter and promoting healthier diets and lifestyles. For example, the Don’t Mess with Texas Campaign reduced littering alongside roads by 72% over a four-year period by appealing to Texan pride (McClure and Spence 2006). Popular fitness apps like Stickk set up financial contracts to help users meet their health goals by capitalizing on the disproportionate aversion to loss that everyone seems to share. Because environmental impacts — as well as laws and regulations — result from human decisions and behaviors, environmental problems are people problems, and solutions depend on changing people’s decisions and actions.

There are only so many ways to do this. Grassroots organizing and participatory decision-making can result in rules aimed at protecting the environment that people belief in, and thus comply with. Legislation can be passed and regulations can be enforced in order to compel certain kinds of behavior when target audiences do not experience sufficient psychological, social, or economic motivation to comply on their own. Economic incentives that align self-interest with productive environmental outcomes can often be effective in changing behavior of rational actors, like businesses or institutions.

Decades of research and practical experience have yielded a powerful new approach. It starts with research and deep listening to learn more about the specific forces guiding the decisions and actions of target audiences, in order to gain insight into the roots of opposition to environmental progress and to identify the psychological and contextual drivers of these attitudes, decisions, and behaviors. Next, we identify target behaviors of specific actors and audiences necessary to hold the line or maybe even advance the environmental agenda, and develop and test ideas for facilitating these behaviors. This is where the principles that have been extracted from behavioral science and real world case studies can be used to build strategies that result in positive behavior change. Barriers to the desired behavioral changes, such as lack of trust or faith in the efficacy of the behavior or a low sense of agency must be removed.

Behavioral science principles can be applied to change the contexts in which decisions are made, nudging people toward decisions and actions that are both in their own self-interest and in the public interest. And over the long term, communications and trust-building can be used to change beliefs and deep-seated narratives.

All of these approaches to protecting the environment by influencing human behavior — legislation, enforcement, participatory decision-making, economic incentives, and behavior change strategies — are essential. Understanding how to influence decision-making and behavior is key to making them all work better. Efforts to apply behavioral science to environmental protection are promising but need to be scaled quickly if we expect to prevent a roll back of the environmental protections we have worked so hard to obtain.

Several groups are now making progress in applying the insights flowing from behavioral science to environmental protection. Academic groups like CRED are developing, testing, and implementing a range of new behavior change interventions to protect the environment. The private sector is also engaged: Virgin Atlantic reduced emissions by more than 21,000 metric tons of CO2 and saved over $3.7 million for the company over an 8-month period with simple behavior change interventions such as feedback on fuel use. Several electrical and water utilities regularly use behavioral insights to dramatically increase resource use efficiency.

Increasingly, environmental non-profits are applying behavioral science. For example, Resource Media and Rare have successfully incorporated behavior science principles into communication, social marketing, and behavior change strategies to protect the environment. The Environmental Defense Fund pioneered the use of economic incentives to motivate improved environmental performance and is now adding behavior change tools to its toolkit. Organizations like Ideas 42 and Root Solutions work with NGOs, companies and governmental agencies to use behavioral science principles to address a wide range of social and environmental challenges.

Administrations and politicians come and go, but the need to protect the environment persists. And when we can no longer rely on the government to do this, it is our duty and challenge to find other ways. We will have to organize and motivate tens of millions of people to counter attempts to unravel the institutional and legal framework that keeps our air clean, our waters pure, and natural areas intact. Behavioral science offers powerful tools to do this; let’s put them to good use.

Citations: McClure, T., & Spence, R. (2006). Don’t Mess with Texas: The Story Behind the Legend. Idea City Press.