Tuesday, July 24, 2012

"Condition the People"

Three things started to get me back to wondering about how to get people to become more energy efficient, more eco-aware, more sustainable, more Earth-friendly, more "green", the first was the following webcomic from Kickstand Comics:

The second was a radio piece on NPR yesterday morning: An Alaska Company Losing The Obesity Game Calls In Health Coaches:
Health coaches are a new kind of health professional, and it's their job to help people make those easy-to-say, hard-to-do behavioral changes that promote good health — getting enough exercise, eating a balanced diet, and managing stress.

At first, the lifestyle changes Orley made were very small.

"We started out where my goal was to take the stairs instead of the elevator once a day. Not even more than that but just really manageable," she said.

Soon Orley was drinking more water and less soda. She began walking regularly and attending Pilates classes. She kicked her fast food habit. She lost 50 pounds.
The third was a piece from yesterday's Treehugger: "Beat The Heat: Original Green Architect Steve Mouzon Says, 'Condition People First'":
Briefly, the idea is that if you entice people outside, they get more acclimated to the local environment, needing less heating or cooling when they return indoors.
These three examples provide the case that lines up with the recognition that humans - like many animals - prefer to take the easiest option available to them. This is why pedestrians will cut through grassy areas, why drivers pull their car through to the forward parking space, and even how animal trails develop. It's not surprising that many people will chose the option that is faster and requires less body-energy use to accomplish the same action. If we have a car, we're more likely to use it than to get about on our own energy. If we have the option of parking close and using elevators, we're more likely to do them rather than walking across an expansive parking lot and climbing the stairs (even to the point where this becomes possible). If we have the option of green gadgets to achieve sustainable design, we'll use those instead of thinking about how to integrate people's behaviors into the design of the building (let alone designing the building to minimize energy use to begin with).

It's not a doubt that cycling will burn more of your body's calories than driving your car the same distance, and walking briskly will likely burn more than cycling. Of course, both cycling and brisk walking will take a longer amount of time and will leave you a little bit more sweaty and tired at the destination, which are both good reasons for not wanting walk or bike when you have a car. Similar arguments can be made for parking close to your destination, taking elevators and escalators, and designing buildings to show off green gadgets. However, what all of these actions do is to solidify norms and then amplify them. It's why bike-commuting in much of the United States is considered to be an undesired alternative: car ownership provides so many benefits of transportation ease (both time and distance) that one doesn't need to live near work or rely upon public transit, therefore suburbs (and now exurbs) grew (and are growing), public transit networks shrank (or became reliant upon cheaper and less competitive means, like buses), and satellite towns grew from self-sustaining hamlets and villages into sprawling residential cities with little to no/insufficient downtown amenities for a community so large.

Compare this to the situation in many European cities, where a conscious effort was made to shape policy that would discourage American-levels of sprawl and maintain cycling as a valued option for public commuting. Here, the government made the decision to "condition the people" to the idea that cycling was a valid option through the provision of bike lanes (either shared with traffic or separated from it) and increasing the pedestrianized areas in cities (which often allow bikes while banning all cars and trucks, save for early morning deliveries).

In the US, meanwhile, riding a bike is - apart from a specific segment of the population (dense-city dwellers and university students) - a daily conscious decision, which is (largely) predicated on the initial decision of where to live in relation to work. Of course, although I live 4 miles from where I work, my only viable option is to ride my bike (since I don't own a motor vehicle and live about 20 minutes from the nearest bust stop). I know that - for me - given the choice of cycling or driving, I would likely drive, even though it would take just as much time (assuming that I park at or on the university campus) or more (if I parked in the residential areas where parking is free... if you can find a spot).

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