1/27/2015

The next energy revolution will be in our heads


Turn out the lights. Don't forget your reusable bags. Take a two-minute shower. We environmentalists used to be good at nagging people about their behavior.

And then something changed.

Despite years of haranguing our colleagues, friends, family and even total strangers, many of us realized that we really weren't making headway. People kept using plastic bags. Our better halves kept leaving the lights on.

Techno-fixes are forever
So the focus shifted to technological innovation and legislative change. And as I argued in a TreeHugger piece on techno-fixes versus behavior change, there's something to be said for this approach. LED lights are efficient, whether a homeowner turns them off or not. Solar power is clean, even if you waste some of it by leaving the TV on. And conversely, while you might convince someone to take a shorter shower, who's saying they won't revert to old behaviors once their attention shifts from the melting ice caps to something more immediate?

Whether it's massive improvements in energy efficiency or solar prices falling off a cliff, the techno-centric approach has yielded significant victories. Yet behavior change is undergoing somewhat of a renaissance too.

The return of 'green' behavior change
In an article for the Washington Post, Chris Mooney makes the case for why the next energy revolution won't be in wind and solar. It will be in our brains. And the primary example that Mooney gives is about as far from your treehugging stereotype as you might imagine — the U.S. military is embracing this concept in a big way:

As head of the Marines Corps’ five-year-old Expeditionary Energy Office, [Marine regimental commander Jim] Caley is tapping into one of the hottest trends in academic energy research: looking to use psychology and the behavioral sciences to find ways of saving energy by changing people — their habits, routines, practices and preconceptions. 
“The opportunities that we see on the behavioral side of the house are phenomenal,” Caley explained during a recent interview in his Pentagon office. “And they’re frankly less expensive than us trying to buy new equipment.”

Mooney goes on to point out that there are equally huge savings to be had in the civilian world. Convincing people to drive 60 mph, vs. 70, could save 2 percent of U.S. households' energy consumption. Adjusting thermostats a couple of degrees could save 2.8 percent. Changing washing machine settings another 1 percent. Pretty soon, it starts to add up to a significant amount of overall consumption...more