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Energy Free Rides

May 6, 2008

On Cinco de Mayo, I was talking to an environmentally minded friend over lunch at Maudi’s and chewing on weighty problems. He suggested that the Free Rider Problem from Game Theory may be part of the struggle for conservation movements to get rolling. The FRP states that when a populate is large enough members can easily opt out of paying their share. By assuming that the majority will contribute they get a free ride. If enough people do this then the market collapses or fails to advance.

This certainly explains some of the behavior that prevents emergent conservation, but I think there is also an overwhelming boil the ocean phenomena at play. It’s currently impossible for individuals to see any practical connection between their drop of wastefulness and a world wide problem.

I believe that it is possible to make this a personal connection if we can:

  1. put the use into personal terms like gallons of gas or hours of TV
  2. allow people to see a measurable (10%?) improvement from conservation
  3. connect them into small enough groups that we overcome the Free Rider problem

There are many instances in which the national zeitgeist shifts from ignoring widespread intractable problems into addressing them aggressively as enforced social norms. For example, littering in the 70s, polyester in the 80s, smoking in the 90s, and recycling in the 00s.

The tide is turning, but it’s still too hard for people to measure the benefit.

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One comment

  1. […] that occurred in the 60s to the needed change about energy.  In the last 60s, litter was a massive free rider problem where people felt totally OK throwing trash everywhere.  Industrial pollution and dumping were […]



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