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Posts Tagged ‘sociology’

These past two weeks spent traveling in France and Italy convinced me even more about the role of culture and society in shaping individual behaviors. Most interesting was to observe how both I and Prad adapted our behaviors to fit the different customs in each country. Prad, who usually protests vigorously the slightest whiff of cigarette smoke back home, thought nothing of taking strolls on the smoke-filled Parisian sidewalks. In Italy, we quickly learned to conform to the practice of drinking bottled water at the restaurants. Two examples of the power of social norms, relative to individual environmental choices.

This raises the question of how to bring changes in normative behaviors, that will support sustainable lifestyles, across cultures. According to Horne, “New norms are thought to emerge when costs of compliance with existing norms become too high relative to the rewards“. Montgomery weighs concerns of costly normative actions against concerns of morality or social opinion. Though unlikely to change their behavior when norms become costly, individuals will praise those willing to do so; after a few have tested the waters, a domino effect of individuals who harbor less fear of social sanction will follow. If these innovators receive social approval, individuals will continue to participate in new strategies in order to gain recognition. Christakis‘s research similarly points to the social nature of behavioral changes.

On the green front, several trends are emerging that should give us hope. First, is the growing acceptance of the idea of green as universally cool and no longer the claim of a few treehuggers. The social sanction for behaviors such as biking, recycling, carpooling, using mass transit, recycling, to name just a few, has tipped towards the positive. Concurrently, rising gas and energy prices, are making it harder and harder for people to maintain their old behaviors. SUVs, boats, superfluous driving no longer make sense for the majority of Americans. Other adaptive behaviors are stirring, as in urban gardening, and driving more slowly.

Because time is of the essence, we would do well to consider strategies to accelerate this movement:

First, are opinion changing strategies, including all mass media and communication campaigns. Every green drop counts. What I write here in this blog. What you write, either in your own blog, or as a commenter on others’ blogs. What you say in casual conversations to your friends and coworkers. What you ask from your elected representative. What you communicate through your example, as in here and here. What the “we” and the “Together” people do. What Barack Obama, and other leaders declare is important. What the New York Times, and the rest of the press put on their front page. What Arianna Huffington chooses to promote. It all matters.

Second, are cost raising strategies, in relative terms, either through the offering of new, lower cost options, or the raising of the costs of existing options, whether volitional or not. Rising gas and energy prices are an example of the latter. And so are various forms of carbon tax. Smart technologies such as more fuel efficient cars or home energy efficiency solutions work on the other end, through the promise of higher financial rewards, and social acceptance.

Third are direct behavior shaping strategies such as evolved from Pierre Chandon‘s research. Chandon‘s study, ‘When Does the Past Repeat Itself? The Role of Self-Prediction and Norms.‘ tells us that ‘by predicting our behavior, we can actually reinforce good habits and break bad ones‘, a sophisticated twist on the power of self-fulfilling prophecy. What this means for our problem, is that by asking people such simple questions as ‘Do you bike, do you carpool, how often and how long do you walk, do you turn off your lights, do you hang your clothes to dry, do you eat fresh food?’ chances are it will increase the likelihood of them engaging in these behaviors. Conversely, by not mentioning other negative behaviors such as driving, using dryer, eating processed food, etc, they will be less inclined to perpetuate those. 

This is just the beginning of a long list. My main point is, thought leaders on climate change and other global environmental issues with a human factor component, need to spend more time exploring such behavior shaping strategies, based on the available body of research on normative behaviors.

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It’s been over a year now, since I decided to return to work full time, after a long stretch raising my daughters and pursuing other interests. Job offers have come and gone. So many options, and a sense that I can really do anything, as long as I set my heart to it. And I am still looking, for the perfect job, with just the right mix of greenness and Web hipness. It’s gotten to the point where I am feeling restless, and frustrated. Enters Barry Schwartz, a sociology professor at Swarthmore College, and the author of ‘The Paradox of Choice‘:

I can totally relate. More importantly, Barry Schwartz provides yet another argument for why we need to share our material affluence. It is good for us to deal with less, and the rest of the world needs our surplus. 

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We are social beings

Prad has been gone a little less than two days. I thought I would enjoy this weekend alone, and purposely did not schedule any social activities with my girlfriends. Fourty eight uninterrupted hours, that I could spend doing all the things I love most! Blogging, swimming, taking long walks, reading, vegging. With only a few interruptions from Catherine, on the rare occasions when she still needs something from me. The truth is, being alone sucks. And virtual connections are no substitute for flesh encounters with good friends, family, and even strangers. Every day, my eighty five year old mother goes out for grocery shopping. She does not need to go that often, but she ventures out, still, for the human interaction with the shopkeepers. “Otherwise, I would go crazy.” She lives alone, with only one neighbor she can visit. All her friends have died, and she lives far away from me and my brother. My mother has never been very good at making social connections outside of our immediate family. Over the years, her active social network has diminished to practically nothing. Her life is hell.

Socialization, the way it used to be

Being in the house, alone, I was thinking about all the ways that people socialize nowadays, versus, let say, fifty, a hundred years ago. And I went right back to my days on the farm, with my mother and my grandparents. Socialization was embedded in the fabric of our lives, then. Sunday was going to the market on the horse carriage to the nearby town. The market was a social event, where you got to meet all your friends from other villages. It took us forever to make our way through the whole square, so busy my grandfather was talking to one or the other. Then there was Sunday mass right after. The best part was sitting in the church, and feeling surrounded by the whole community, our community. Of course, the whole village was out and about during the day. Everybody knew everybody, and would stop at each other’s houses. At night, during winter, there were stories told around the fire. My favorite sitting spot was way in the far corner of the fireplace, real close to the flames. I had a little chair that barely fit. If I got too close, my face started to burn. Too far, I started feeling cold. I would spend my time, trying to find the right distance, while listening to the adults’ conversations. The highlight of the year was the batterie, a day of celebration for the whole village signaling the completion of a successful harvest for the wheat crop. Each year, the batterie took place in a different house, and I still remember the time whey we were the hosts. The women had prepared a feast and I had helped. The men, all sweaty from a day in the fields, were laughing and drinking wine, and everybody had something to say to me, la petite. We were pretty happy on the whole, back then. Our basic need for socialization was taken care of.

Estimated score on the collective happiness index: an 8. Total carbon footprint: zero, with the exception of the wood burning.

Socialization now, and why it’s not working

Things are different now. In Silicon Valley where I live, there is a lot of socialization, but you’ve got to plan it. I am fortunate enough to live in a great neighborhood, with neighbors who actually talk to and help each other. But the bulk of our socialization centers around driving from place to place, from activity to activity. For parents, it often means chauffeuring a bunch of kids in SUVs, to sports events. I live very close to the Stanford campus. The other day, I was walking at night, and noticed the soccer field, brimming with activity. There was a night game, and parents had come cheering. What got to me were the bright lights, and the amount of electricity that’s required for that type of social event. Shopping is another big pet peeve of mine. Shopping is a social outlet for many women, and men, and teenagers. All driving to the mall, often without any real need for anything. Only the need to shop. And to go to a place filled with people, with guaranteed opportunities for social transactions. These are just two examples. I keep reading reports that our happiness is way down. Our lives nowadays tend to be fragmented between various networks, that are geographically dipersed. This requires more work on our part, and results in more superficial social ties.

Estimated score on the collective happiness index: 4. Total carbon footprint: it’s going to kill us, unless we change our ways.

Socialization, as part of the green solution

In the search for a green solution, maybe we ought to consider strategies that address this fundamental need we have as social beings, for relatedness and community? It may not be all of the solution, but in my opinion, it ought to be a main part. Looking for ways to rebuild local communities, around non carbon producing activities, or even better, around carbon reducing initiatives. Recognizing that the deeper human need is not about consuming, but socializing instead. The emergence of virtual green social networks is a step in the right direction. It is only one step, however. Virtual connections can only go so far. Eventually, people need to meet, and feel physically connected to each other, around a common activity. The churches, the villages are gone. We need to find a substitute for the mall culture. To do with community, neighborhoods, nature, stories, rituals, work, play, and celebration.

Anticipated score on the collective happiness index: 8. Anticipated total carbon footprint: negative. What do you think?

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