Columnists: Sea Rotmann, Operating Agent HTR Task (DSM TCP by IEA)

Published on: 20 Mar 2012

Why change behaviours?

I truly believe we can change the world for the better. I believe there is a key to improving our energy security, energy affordability, energy efficiency, greenhouse gas emissions and comfort. I believe that this can be achieved for very little money, and very little loss in the service that we have grown to expect from using energy. I also believe it is doable. What I can’t believe, is how long it has taken us to put some real, sustained effort into understanding, accessing and using this key.

The key I am talking about is human behaviour and decision making. It isn’t just the entire reason why we have such a problem with resource depletion, climate change, fuel poverty,  inefficiency and wasteful use of energy and seriously health effects - it is also the entire solution to these problems. However, when I mention the words ‘behaviour change’ in most, even the most informed cycles, people often jump to the wrong conclusions.

‘She is telling us what to do. She is telling us what not to do. She wants us to take shorter showers. She is telling us what we do is wrong and is killing the planet. She is trying to guilt-trip us into changing.’ I don’t actually want to tell anyone what to do or not to do. I just want to make people understand that the key to improving our lives lies within us, as does the power to make a change. Or chose not to.

There are many times and examples in my own life where I don’t behave as well as I should, or would like. I probably emit as much carbon as anyone who doesn’t spend his whole working life researching and working on energy efficiency and sustainability implementation. My international travel for both work and to see family and friends makes sure of that, as does my passion for roadtrips in my oldtimer Mercedes. So as long as I don’t practice perfectly sustainable behaviours myself, I really shouldn’t be justified to preach about it, right?

That’s why I don’t want to preach about behaviour change, I want to show how, when and where it can be done with the least amount of pain. I am really interested to find out why I behave the way I do and where I can make better decisions without losing the things that I love doing. I want to learn from other experts - researchers, policy makers and implementers of behaviour change programmes, and share my ideas. I want to understand the ‘average’ energy end user and what (in)forms their social norms. I want all of us to come together, in one ‘super brain’ and use this enormous amount of our combined knowledge, experience, research and beliefs to figure out what triggers our behaviours and how we can get inspired to change what is bad for us.

We contracted what is termed ‘Affluenza’ these past few generations, especially since the last world war. We could use and consume all we wanted, because we had unlimited fossil resources to fuel our lifestyles. However, the world, and our understanding of the consequences of over-consumption and unlimited growth, have since changed. We now know that we are on the brink of disaster - resource peaks, climate change, systemic economic failure and financial crises, pollution and destruction of biohabitats. We know we need to change. We just don’t know how to affect such a massive paradigm shift without causing riots.

That’s why we keep going after the ‘technological silver bullet’ solution to our problems. There is unlimited belief in our technological progress and innovativeness, and little heed is paid to the underlying resource limitations that are also going to limit any major technological revolutions and paradigm shifts. I just don’t think that we have the fossil resources, rare earths and necessary usable land left to completely re-build our civilisation with new, non-emitting, highly efficient technologies. And technology and innovation are also hugely dependent on human behaviour and decision making - designing, purchasing and correctly using the most energy efficient technologies are all dependent on the vagaries and irrationalities of the human mind, our habits, values, cultural idiosyncracies and social norms.

I believe that behaviour change is a big key to solving some of our problems and mitigating many of our impacts. I don’t believe there is a behavioural ‘silver bullet’, or one model that fits all people and all circumstances. But I do believe that a better understanding of the contexts that influence our behaviours will help unlock some mysteries. If you are interested in joining me, and other ‘believers’ in combining our knowledge, experience, research and beliefs on behaviour change, please contact me at . The time is ripe to try something different.

The views expressed in this column are those of the columnist and do not necessarily reflect the views of eceee or any of its members.

Other columns by Sea Rotmann