Posts Tagged ‘free rider’

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Energy Analog: 60s Litter?

August 1, 2008

I had an interesting conversation over breakfast with MetroNetIQ.com blogger and fellow Green Geek, John C.  We were comparing the social paradigm shift about litter 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 also rampant.

I still vividly remember the anti-pollution adds (albeit from the 1970s).  Through a combination of laws and social change we have radically altered society’s opinion about pollution and litter.  They are simply not accepted – they have become social taboos.  We need the same change for sustainability.

An enduring icon for anti-pollution

An enduring icon for anti-pollution

The change took huge political will power.  It was an major economic burden on the businesses.  People individually took action and changed their behavior.  So what happened to change us? Why is this different than the nascent energy paradigm shift?

I believe that the pollution problem was directly in people’s back yards and visible.  Water and air quality in-your-face disasters.  It also fit with the culture of the era.  So far, our energy problem has been growing silently – terrorism and climate change are hard to link to daily actions.  The recent surge in prices is motivating people to change, but I don’t see a paradigm shift.

What icon will emerge for sustainability?  How bad will it have to get before we have a universal icon?

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Pool Ponderings – costs are double

June 10, 2008

My oldest son (and I) got to play care taker for a neighbor’s pool over the last week. We had to keep adding more and more water just to keep up with evaporation (and a leak?). I suspect that we put more water in that pool than my household used in the same week! Our lawn proves that we’re very careful with water because 1) it’s expensive and 2) it’s a limited resource. I found it very hard to keep filling up that hole in their backyard every other day.

My family is a MAJOR pool user. We love pools, but we use the community pool. The community pool is awesome because 1) we don’t worry about the water or maintenance and 2) we love seeing other people in our community. One of the reasons that we care about saving limited resources is because we belong to a community. The pool both conserves resources and connects us socially – it is a type of social energy.

When our neighbors with pools don’t participate in the community at the pool they get less connected to the rest of us. They get comfortable wasting limited resources and paying high maintenance costs while unplugging from their community.

This is exactly the type of self-reinforcing pattern that our society will need to outgrow before we can become sustainable.

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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.