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Monday, January 25, 2016

Littering, dog poop, and the climate change accord

With snow making gardening a memory and a hope, I want to write this week about a larger environmental topic. I’ll start at ground level.
     One of the great questions that has haunted me all my life is why people litter. What are you thinking when you go to a conservation area for a walk in the woods and drop your soda can or lottery ticket beside the path?  

Now it strikes me that littering has something to tell us about addressing climate change.
     I’m a dog owner, so I find behavior around dog poop particularly puzzling and frustrating. A significant minority of owners bags the dog waste and then leaves bags along the path or sidewalk. They may intend to come back and retrieve the bags at the end of the walk, but I can testify that many of those bags get left behind. 

     Psychologist Robert Cialdini and colleagues actually researched determinants of littering in 1990. In a 2014 Atlantic interview, Cialdini asked a better question than mine: why don’t people litter? “The crucial question is why don’t they litter, since the easy thing is to litter . . . Their attitudes toward the environment make a difference, but what they perceive as the norm is key.”
      As we ask ourselves how to translate the climate change accord’s commitments into action, we could take a lesson from Cialdini’s research. By presenting cues suggesting that littering is socially unacceptable, his group was able to make people in a library parking lot less likely to drop a handbill left on their windshields to the ground.
      Maybe those dog owners I criticize are getting cues from their dog-walking circle that dropping poop bags on the ground is the norm. In my friend group, driving a hybrid car allows me to pat myself on the back for being part of the solution. I was happy with that until someone pointed out what a tiny step it was on the road to sustainability.
      An adjustment of norms could help rein in the ultimate form of litter, carbon emissions. The conference delegates in Paris seem to have had something like that in mind when they set up the transparency aspect of the agreement, requiring governments to report back on emissions reductions. A California utility company has already demonstrated success nudging homeowners to reduce electricity use by comparing their use to neighbors’. No one wants to be the loser in a competition.
      We’re going to need systemic changes that make it the norm—easier and more consistent with our self-image--to conserve energy and switch to renewable sources than to stick to our old ways. Asking nations, communities, and individuals to do what’s harder and more expensive because it’s right can only get us so far. Systems have to change so that people can. We’re ready to do our part, but without that bag conveniently at hand and the trash barrel at the park gate, we’re likely to leave the dog poop on the ground—and drive off in that Prius. 


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