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What’s the Best Path to a Sustainable Future?

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What’s the best way to create a sustainable future in a changing climate — through government regulation, or through changing people’s habits and attitudes?


As we face the consequences of a changing climate, many people wonder how we can most effectively change the consumptive habits of U.S. citizens. The government has the ability to implement taxes and regulations that put restrictions on carbon emissions, and to provide subsidies to companies in order to make environmentally friendly options cheaper and more lucrative. However, with a gridlocked Congress and slow administrative progress, is it more effective to change people’s behavior and attitudes or affect change through government action?

Some say yes. For example, in Japan, social habits have a large impact on resource use and waste produced. According to the World Bank, Japan emits 9.2 metric tons of carbon dioxide per capita (compared to the United States’ nearly 17.6). With comparable economies, what difference could produce such skewed results? In addition to the small footprint and corresponding energy efficiency of many Japanese homes, some believe that the cooperation, investment and attitude of the people of Japan goes a long way towards explaining the difference. The culture of Japan values land very highly, and limits landfill. According to Jacquie Ottman, the founder of People Towels, she found no paper towel dispensers or electric hand dryers during her travels in Japan — each person carried their own hand towel. Contrast this with the United States, where we value convenience (and have lots of room for landfill!). A study completed by students at the Rochester Institute of Technology found that by switching to electric hand dryers on a college campus, carbon emissions from hand drying could be reduced by 75% compared to paper towel use. But, when participants were asked which they preferred, 64.6% said paper towels. Informational campaigns have been shown to have little effect on consumer preferences and behavior, so encouraging environmentally habits is more than quoting statistics.

With this in mind, climate change activists and advocates are looking to the social sciences to understand what will motivate behavior change for consumers and communities, and whether it’s a better route than government mandates. What do you think? Are top-down regulations the best way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions or should we focus our efforts on changing social habits and attitudes? How would you suggest trying trying to change people’s behavior?



VIDEO: Three Myths of Behavior Change (TEDxCSU)
A sociologist discusses the information and support that people need to change their behavior. (Suggested segment to watch: 8:03-12:58)

To respond to the Do Now, you can comment below or tweet your response. Be sure to begin your tweet with @KQEDedspace and end it with #DoNowHabits

For more info on how to use Twitter, click here.

We encourage students to reply to other people’s tweets to foster more of a conversation. Also, if students tweet their personal opinions, ask them to support their ideas with links to interesting/credible articles online (adding a nice research component) or retweet other people’s ideas that they agree/disagree/find amusing. We also value student-produced media linked to their tweets. You can visit our video tutorials that showcase how to use several web-based production tools. Of course, do as you can… and any contribution is most welcomed.

More Resources

ARTICLE: Ten Things We Learnt About Behaviour Change And Sustainability (The Guardian)
This round-up from a conference in the UK shares information from experts in the field of climate change response and sustainable development.

VIDEO: An Island Without Oil (PBS)
Switching this small island entirely to renewable energy was a question of convincing the locals. How did they do it?

AUDIO: Using Psychology To Save You From Yourself (NPR)
Policymakers use research about how people make decisions in order to change behavior.

KQED Education partners with phenomenal organizations to bring you the Science Do Now activities. The Science Do Now is posted every two weeks on Tuesday. This post was contributed by youth volunteers and interns in the Galaxy Explorers program at Chabot Space & Science Center. Explorers share science through live public demonstrations, hands-on activities, and outreach events in their schools and communities. Open to all Bay Area teens, the program focuses on providing support and opportunities in the sciences to Oakland youth historically underrepresented in STEM careers.

Chabot’s mission is to inspire and educate visitors about Planet Earth and the Universe through exhibits, telescope viewing, planetarium shows, interactive programs, and engaging experiences to connect visitors with the earth and environment, astronomy and space travel. Chabot’s education programs promote STEM literacy skills needed for a 21st-century society and workforce.

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