For years, environmentalists have employed what might best be called the Nudge Model of persuasion. The conversation went like this:
Enviro: C’mon guys! Global warming! Stop driving those big cars. Pleaaaaaaase? C’Mon.”
American: Uh, right. Look, could you get that clipboard out of my face? I have people coming over, and I need to set the table with my plastic plates, take a 30-minute shower, and crank up the air conditioner.
[Gets into Dodge Durango. Revs engine for Indy 500 effect, and screeches out of parking lot].
Enviro: But… but… C’MON!
Now, though, with gas prices over $4 a gallon, and with $5 and $6 well in sight, well! Now we’re seeing some changes (quotes below taken from the articles linked):
• “Car Buyers Downsize, spend big on options“, NYT, 7/17/08, “I’ve never seen anything like it,” Mr. Smith said. “You don’t have too many people saying, ‘It has to be white with a power package and it has to have Michelin tires.’ Instead it’s, ‘What do you have and can I get it by the end of the month? Just get me out of my Tahoe.’”
• “With Gas Over $4, Cities Explore Whether It’s Smart to Be Dense“, WSJ, 7/7/08, “Expensive oil is going to transform the American culture as radically as cheap oil did,” predicts David Mogavero, a Sacramento-based architect and smart-growth proponent.”
• “Wal-Mart goes local“, Clean Tech Group, 7/2/08, “Through better logistics planning, better packing of trucks and local sourcing, the company expects to save millions of “food miles” each year, which it said is the distance food travels from farm to fork.”
• “Field Poll finds high gas prices change Californians habits, views“, Press-Enterprise, 7/17/08, “We do no weekend driving — we don’t go out,” said Charley Stillwagon, a truck driver and single father of five from Rancho Cucamonga. “If we feel like a movie, we rent one.”
• “Gas Prices Drive Students to Online Courses“, Chronicle of Higher Education, 7/8/08, “It’s getting to the point of either gas or class,” says Robbie K. Melton, associate vice chancellor for the Tennessee Board of Regents.”
Not that any of it’s at all surprising that people respond more quickly to money than moral arguments. But with the policy question of how best to address CO2 emissions and water conservation still raging, environmentalists would do well to think about how economic tools can best alter behavior, rather than imply moralizing. Al Gore has done his work for us, raising awareness on the issue. Now we have to fix it.