The Right Approach to Sustainability

Thursday, May 16, 2013

What do Toyota Priuses, wind turbines, and high-efficiency light bulbs have in common? They're all examples of today's emphasis on sustainability, the idea that humans must conserve natural resources to ensure the planet's health.

But while these and other approaches are noble and even sensible, they're usually bound for failure if they don't account for deeply rooted human traits. That was a key finding offered by Associate Professor Vladas Grisekicius in a 2012 issue of the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing.

In the article, Griskevicius explores how such ancestral human tendencies as selfishness, short-term thinking, unconscious social imitation, and the like have helped cause environmental destruction. What's more, he argues, those behaviors and their consequences are not new. They've been on the rise since the first nomadic hunter-gatherers wandered the globe.

"The critical question for us was this: Given that humans have these tendencies, is there a way to rechannel them into more positive behaviors?" Griskevicius explains.

The research answered that question with an unambiguous yes--and provided examples of how to harness human nature for environmental good. "People tend to copy others' behavior; if your neighbors recycle, you'll do it too," Griskevicius says.

"We cite the case of a utility company that provided details on consumer's energy bills comparing their energy usage with their neighbors' usage. The results were remarkable--the amount of energy use reduced by the strategy was equivalent to removing 150,000 homes from the electricity grid."

Griskevicius and his co-authors lay out other examples and strategies in the article. They also offer a fundamentally optimistic conclusion: While human nature has had a direct hand in creating modern-day problems, it also has the innate capacity to help solve them.

"The Evolutionary Bases for Sustainable Behavior: Implications for Marketing, Policy, and Social Entrepreneurship" Griskevicius, V., et al, Journal of Public Policy and Marketing (2012)