Wednesday, May 28, 2008

social marketing

How do we get people to lower their green house gas emissions? How do we get people to act more sustainably?

We can enact regulations that forbid excessive GHG emissions, like an anti-idling bylaw. But regulations are only as good as public compliance, and public compliance depends on people's attitudes.

We can tell people about the threat of global warming but we need to be careful. Because if we just pump them with information about how bad a situation will be without showing them that their actions can make a difference, they are more likely to ignore the information in self-defence.

If we perceive that we have some control over how to improve the problem then we are more likely to act. If we perceive that in concert with others we can make an impact we are also more likely to act. Information by itself is impersonal. People are strongly influenced by personal contact with other people.

People don't necessarily need to know more about global warming. They need to know how lowering their greenhouse gas emissions is easy to do and convenient. Any appeal to change has to be in the form of a quid pro quo – if people are going to make a sacrifice they have to feel like they are getting something in return. That's where Social Marketing comes in.

Good marketing creates a set of benefits for the customer. Commercial marketers study the habits, perceptions and attitudes of consumers to see how they can produce a product that will satisfy consumer wants.

In social marketing, the goal is to reduce bads and increase public goods by influencing public behaviour. Composting can reduce the amount of landfill and add fertility to gardens – but only if people are willing to do it. Buses can replace a lot of cars on the street and thereby reduce traffic congestion and lower emissions, but only if people actually take the bus.

Why do some people adopt sustainable activities and others do not? Those who do not act sustainably may do this out of ignorance, or because they perceive barriers to the sustainable activities, or because the benefits are higher for competing behaviours.

The fact is, people will always find attractive – behaviours that have high benefits and few barriers. But a benefit to one person may be a barrier to another. Benefits and barriers vary both over persons and over time.

If we don't know what the barriers to a desired behaviour are, then we cannot successfully influence people to change their behaviour. In order to influence people we need to understand what are the actual and the perceived barriers to that activity.

What behaviours do we want to promote? Reducing carbon dioxide emissions can be done by increasing the fuel efficiency of cars, reducing the use of cars, by insulating houses, and by increasing energy efficiency. For an example, let's look at reducing car use.

The behaviours we want to promote are taking the bus, walking, and riding a bicycle. Let's narrow it a bit more. What are the barriers and benefits associated with riding a bicycle? The barriers might be: the weather, seasons, self-image, lack of physical fitness, fear of traffic, riding is uncomfortable, don't have appropriate clothing, etc, What are the benefits of riding a bicycle? Self-image, it feels good, seeing more of the landscape, enjoying the good weather, getting fresh air, exercise, saving money, etc.

Who are we targeting? This is a very important question. We do not target people who do not want to ride a bicycle. We want to know which people are most likely to want to ride a bicycle and which people are most likely to change their behaviour in this direction. Teenagers? Young adults? Working people? Parents? Here's where field work is required. Surveys need to be done in order to target the correct audience.

Once you target the correct audience you need to gather facts on the ground. It's time to observe what people actually do; to compare how people should ideally do behaviour to what they actually do. What are the target audience's perceptions of barriers? What motivates them? What do they see as benefits? Then you want to determine what barriers would be easiest to lower and what benefits would be easiest to add. This requires more research.

Now we are getting up close and personal because this kind of information requires focus groups to get at the right details. Note that, when dealing with focus groups we would want the participants to be uninformed about any campaign for encouraging cycling because if they were informed beforehand they would not be representative. Here are some questions we might ask at this stage:

1.What makes it difficult to ride a bicycle?
2. What makes it easy to ride a bicycle?
3. What positives are associated with riding a bicycle?
4. What negatives are associated with riding a bicycle?
5. Who wants you to use a bicycle and how much do you care about their opinion?
6. Who doesn't want you to ride a bicycle and how much do you care about their opinion?

Once the more detailed information about barriers and benefits is acquired from the focus groups, a plan is devised and a pilot project is attempted with a small selected group. The pilot project is evaluated and then the plan is modified until it will work for the community as a whole.

Behaviour Change Tools

The diversity of barriers to an activity like bicycling mean that information alone won't get people to switch activities. Personal contact is the key to influencing people which is why most of the tools of social marketing involve direct social contact.

Communication - present information that is vivid, concrete, and personalized. It will more likely be noticed and remembered and have a lasting impact. Know your audience – their attitudes, beliefs and behaviours. To do this you need to gather evidence before you develop your message.
Have your message delivered by an individual or an organization that is seen as credible to your target audience.
Frame your message. Messages that emphasize losses which occur as a result of inactivity are consistantly more persuasive than messages that emphasize savings as a result of taking action.

Committment – Individuals who agree to a small initial request are far more likely to agree to a subsequent larger request. The act of committment subtly alters one's attitude. People have a strong internal pressure to behave consistantly. Example: During a blood drive, volunteers were told over the phone: “We'll count on seeing you then OK?” Just saying this made volunteers more likely to show up. Another example: Earth Hour – committing to turning off the lights for one hour.
Written committment is even more effective. Asking for permission to make the committment public leads to lasting change even if it isn't made public. Home visits, or when a service is provided, such as the delivery of a compost unit, are ideal opportunities to employ committment.
Existing volunteer groups like church groups and boy scouts can be effective in getting group committments or working door to door. We can ask people who commit to trying a new behaviour to ask others to commit. We can point out other sustainable behaviours that they are already involved in. The idea is that we are helping people to see themselves as environmentally concerned.
Committment must be voluntary. Do not ask a subject if they are not interested in the activity.

Prompts – are reminders to engage in action that we are already predisposed to do. We tend to forget to do things – we leave cloth shopping bags at home, we forget to shut off the car's engine when we are waiting, etc.. Prompts need to be noticable, self-explanatory, and in close proximity to targeted behaviour. Example: removable decals on dashboards to remind drivers to stop engines while waiting. Signs can be put in common waiting areas like school parking lots. Prompts should be used to encourage positive behaviours rather than to avoid negative behaviours.

Norms – People look to the behaviour of others around them to determine how they will behave. Start with people who want to do the target behaviour. Identify natural leaders. People are more likely to imitate or conform to a behaviour if they see someone they respect or look up to doing it.
Communicate to people the number of people in the community who are already doing the activity – eg., riding a bicycle to work.

Acting to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and acting sustainably are complex activities that transcend the kind of simple behaviour of switching brands of toothpaste, etc. that commercial advertising targets. That is why information campaigns, no matter how clever, are not usually effective. Social Marketing emphasizes techniques of observation and social contact that help form more long lasting and effective patterns of behaviour.


McKenzie-Mohr, Doug, and Smith, William, Fostering Sustainable Behaviour , New Society Publishers, Gabriola Island BC. c.1999

Bird, Tom, “Five Secrets of Social Marketing” Alternatives Journal, V 34, number 1, 2008.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Beyond the laws of leadership

I've been reading a book by leadership guru John Maxwell, called
The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership. I'm impressed with Maxwell's
page-turning writing style and his simple pithy examples. "Leadership
ability is the lid that determines a person's level of effectiveness."
That's an eye-opening point he makes in his first chapter.

Another quote: "to add growth lead followers but to multiply
growth lead leaders." This one reminds me of what's behind the success of the Religious Right and the Christian mega-churches in the United States. Maxwell himself acknowledges his connection to Bill Hybels ,pastor of the hugely influential Willow Creek Community Church.

Outside Bill Hybels' office is a poster with the caption: "What is
our business? Who is our customer? What does the customer consider value?"

Every year Willow Creek Church hosts a leadership conference
which, in previous years, has featured Presidents: Jimmy Carter, Bill
Clinton, and George W. Bush as speakers.

Like the corporate goal of maximizing profits, the goal of the
Willow Creek Mega-church is to maximize the conversion of unbelievers. It has 13,000 member churches and a 50 million dollar state-of-the-art worship center that features the largest auditorium in the United States.

Hybels, in his book: "The Courageous  Leader" says: "Leaders see the big picture and understand how to help others to find their place of
service within that picture." My problem with Bill Hybels is that he
is not thinking big enough. Just because you use words like "God" and
"Jesus" doesn't mean that your vision is big enough. It's simple – the
big picture is how are we going to survive, both as a civilization and
as a species. One of John Maxwell's quotes on leadership is apt here:
"Anyone can steer the ship but it takes a leader to chart the course."

Corporations, are required, by law, to be run solely   in order to
make money for their stockholders. And they have become enormously successful to the point where the size of many corporations rivals that of the nation-state. Exxon-Mobil Corporation has an economy that's bigger than 180 countries. Many of these huge corporations,including Exxon, are corrupting governments so that they will
implement policies that further the corporation's own profit-making
goals. The problem is that, even though corporations are now as
powerful as nation states the rules of the game are fixed so that
these corporations assume no responsibility for future generations.

The problem of focussing on growth of any kind, is that it is
too narrow a focus. While corporations have grown bigger than many
states the environmental and human cost has become too high. Think about the fate of the Titanic. It was so big for its time that people thought it was unsinkable. But its captain couldn't see the iceberg in time to change the big ship's course and the Titanic went down.

When you don't see the bigger picture you aren't navigating,
you're steering blindly. By concentrating on growth, corporate leaders
have forgotten to look ahead at the consequences of their actions.
Making more money is great but as the Indians say: "When the rivers
stop flowing, and nothing can grow in the soil you won't be able to
eat money."

Bill Hybels' favourite quote is "the local church is the hope of
the world." But where was the church when corporations were denying and delaying action on global warming? By prioritizing emotional issues like abortion and homosexuality the religious right has wasted its moral capital. And by mobilizing it's members to help elect the worst president in U.S. history for two terms of office it has essentially abdicated it's leadership and become a tool of the Republican party.

Mega-churches like Willow Creek may be exemplary at churning out leaders but if those leaders don't see what's coming then it's more a case of the blind leading the blind.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Is Environmentalism a Religion?

Some people accuse environmentalism of being a religion. There are lots of similarities: There is always a list of “Biblical” catastrophes that are predicted to rain down from on high because of our transgressions; People in general are castigated for having too much and not giving more to those who have not; Society as a whole is criticized for heading down the wrong path, etc., etc....

As an environmentalist, I've succumbed to those temptations many times. I admit to preaching fire and brimstone and loving every minute of it. Of course, that was a long time ago, when I was only 50. I'm a lot more mature now.

But at a certain point I realized that the world does not need another religion. We've got plenty of them already. Pushing religion, whatever the type, is divisive. Just look at our neighbours to the south and their Christian President. And look at the religious fault lines that opened up in Iraq after the American invasion.

The American Economist Robert Nelson, who often compares economics to religion draws a convincing parallel between some strands of environmentalism and Calvinism. Calvin was the 16th century Swiss Protestant theologian who inspired the Puritan movement which in turn inspired the first settlements of the New England colonies. Puritanism is the percursor to Christian Fundamentalism which has been so influencial in modern American politics.

According to Calvin, humankind is utterly depraved and corrupt. And even if we do change our ways, God plans to obliterate the vast majority of us anyways. How's that for a cheerful theological message?

It's interesting that, as Nelson points out, there are some environmentalists who sound just like this. Case in point: Paul Watson, founder of the Sea Shepard Society states: “We, the human species have become a viral epidemic to the Earth.” When three maritime sealers died while out sealing Watson said that their deaths didn't matter as much as the thousands of seals that were being slaughtered.

The idea of valuing life on earth more than human life gives me pause. I know it's good to be able to put ourselves in some other critters place but ultimately it's our future that we are interested in. This is my problem with Animal Rights activists. Because if we aren't more important to ourselves than the rest of life, then anything we can do to destroy ourselves faster would be a good thing. We should pollute and consume as much as possible and fight nuclear wars to hasten the end of our species so that life on Earth can get on without us. But, humanity matters. Our future matters. And nature matters because we ultimately depend on her to survive.

Scientifically we know much more about life on earth today than we did centuries ago in Calvin's time. We know that life is an interdependent web. Life supports life. Plants are food and animals are food. Certain elements essential to life: carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen are recycled over vast spans of time so that life can continue on over eons. If these elements were just used up and not recycled, Earth would eventually become barren, like the planet Mars.

Ecosystems continually provide us with food, fresh air, fresh water, climate control, top soil for growing crops, erosion control, and flood control. We cannot put earth's ecosystems in jeopardy without putting ourselves into jeopardy – our ability to feed ourselves, our ability to provide shelter, our ability to breathe, and our ability to pass on our genes and our culture. We don't understand enough about how ecosystems work. To damage them is to risk damaging them beyond repair.

Religious preaching always assumes the presence of faith in listeners. So warnings about God's judgement on sinners and how they're going to hell if they don't do X, all presuppose belief in the Judeo-Christian God. But a warning can be just that – a warning. “Get off the road before you get hit by that car!” is a warning but it doesn't require belief in God. You can believe in God, you can be an Athiest. In any case, you'll still want to avoid getting hit by the car.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Who Was Ayn Rand?

In 2006, on the eve of the subprime mortgage crisis, Alan Greenspan left his job as chairman of the United States Federal Reserve, after twenty years of service. In a speech given a year earlier, Greenspan had praised the rise in the subprime mortgage industry as the right kind of market response for the financial services industry.

Alan Greenspan was a close friend of Ayn Rand, and a close follower of her philosophy. Vitriolic conservative talk show host, Rush Limbaugh is also a follower of Ayn Rand. So is arch-conservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and Republican Presidential contender Ron Paul. Who was Ayn Rand?

She was perhaps the most influential American intellectual in the late twentieth century. Ayn Rand was a novelist and a philosopher. Her magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged, was considered the second most influential book after the Bible in the United States in the 1990's. This book, first published in 1957 is a perennial best seller. Part novel, part philosophical treatise, Atlas Shrugged is about a group of industrialists who set up a free market economy based on the gold standard, in a hiding place deep in the Rocky Mountains. The industrialists break away from the United States economy because excessive government regulation is stifling their creativity.

Ayn Rand was born in Russia and lived through the Russian Revolution as a teenager. She went to University in the Soviet Union and then moved to the United States in the mid 1920's. Rand hated communism and believed passionately in individual rights, private property, and laissez-faire capitalism. She was an militant atheist and also hated Christianity. She died in 1982, but her influence in American politics lives on.

Rand's philosophy, which she called “Objectivism”, is based on the idea that humans can gain objective knowledge from reality. Morality is objective if it can be based on those values that serve to preserve and enhance one's life. She argued that selfishness rather than altruism was correct morally because “man's own happiness is the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.” Altruism was wrong because it was “suicidal”, it encouraged people to sacrifice themselves for the sake of others.

Ayn Rand believed that capitalism is the most ideal form of human society because it gives individuals the right to pursue their own interests through ownership of private property. She disagreed with any government interference with the economy, and argued that government should not be in the business of helping others. Only individuals should help others based on their own free choice. In 1964 she opposed the civil rights act because it violated individual rights to private property.

The fatal flaw in Ayn Rand's philosophy is her epistemology. Knowledge cannot be objective because objective reality is not attainable by humans. All human knowledge is fallible and thus open to improvement. Any model of reality will be fallible because we have to oversimplify reality in order to fit things into concepts. Declaring one's own ideas infallible leads to excluding competing systems of thought, some of which may be valid. This means that you close yourself off from any evidence that might weaken or disprove your position. Then the question is, how can you learn from experience?

The “free market” is an abstraction, a conceptual model that exists because of certain assumptions, such as perfect knowledge and perfect mobility. These assumptions are violated by the real world. Hence, basing moral philosophy on them leads to critical errors.

No matter what happened to the American economy: The Great Depression, the saving and loans fiasco, the subprime mortgage melt-down – all three of which followed the crucial relaxation of financial regulations – people like Alan Greenspan refuse to see the evidence that unregulated markets lead to financial disaster.

Followers of Ayn Rand's “Objectivism”, like Rush Limbaugh, waste a lot of time denying the existence of global warming and denying that there is a problem with anything but environmentalism itself. The evidence says otherwise. By closing their “objective” system from contrary evidence and ruling out most forms of government intervention they have helped to drastically reduce the tools available to build capitalist solutions to environmental and financial problems. The economist's toolbox will remain empty until and unless there is a real change in the American political system.