There is much talk about changing how we live to address climate change. Given our resource-constrained world, it has become clear that we must redesign the way we run our homes, businesses, and cities to waste less and conserve more. Indeed, many exciting technological breakthroughs in energy efficiency and management have enabled shifts in our behavior. But just because change makes rational sense — and despite the solutions at hand — we continue to follow the same routines we've followed for decades. Collectively and individually, we are reluctant to alter our lifestyles. We like what we know and tend to do things as we have done them in the past. But what if changing the way we live and creating a carbon-free world turned out to be healthier, saved us money, and proved even more comfortable? It can. We just need to make it work for people.
Growing scientific evidence tells us that climate change is becoming a more substantial and imminent threat. I am acutely aware of this fact because I have been to many climate change meetings and summits and, for the past two years, I worked for Al Gore‚ helping him build the Alliance for Climate Protection, a social-marketing campaign to mobilize people around solutions to the current crisis. It can be depressing sometimes. As we rush toward the cliff as a society, the average person seems to be either unaware or unconcerned. Exhibit halls at clean-tech conferences are filled with the latest energy-efficient light bulbs, electric vehicles, and demonstrations of how we might live someday. Everywhere we turn‚ there are magazines with celebrities fighting climate change or articles about the coming clean-tech revolution. It seems that at least one “green” TV show is on every hour extolling the virtues of emerging technologies. However, it all doesn’t seem quite real for some reason. Why not? Advocates and entrepreneurs still haven’t found a clear, compelling way to make this future a reality for individuals on either a local or global scale — or how to do it fast enough to make a difference. So most people still aren’t convinced that we need to change the way we live.
What’s missing from every conference panel, in the exhibit halls, and on the nightly news is a fuller discussion about how we can effect change right now. Never in human history have we deliberately tried to change the fundamental way our economy works and our society consumes. Yet we haven’t put enough thought or effort into how to shift the human dynamic to enable a revolution. We know that without widespread market adoption no technology will proliferate and become standard practice. While policy and innovation are clearly important, what we primarily need to focus on is how we as humans adopt and adapt to change. We need to better understand what motivates us as people, how we live today, and what our relationship to energy is.
Tons of human energy and social capital are being spent to reach a global political agreement on climate change that will set targets for emission reductions. This in turn will spur countries to establish new rules that drive capital toward non-carbon producing industries and technologies‚ and create predictability in the market. This needs to happen: We have enough experience to know that predictability and rules can help shift markets. Meanwhile, early investors in clean tech are betting that the markets will indeed shift, fueling demand for their low-carbon alternatives. This is sound thinking — and likely time and money well spent. But what if the average consumer doesn’t want to change?
While pushing for global consensus and regulation, we need to spend an equal amount of time and money on figuring out how to redesign our current existence. We need to better understand how we live, work, and interact with energy right now. If we examine what the average person in any society doesn’t like about how they currently live, what annoys them, and what they want improved, perhaps we could find answers in clean, healthy alternatives. Additionally, we need a deep understanding of the cultural and political obstacles to change and determine the best ways to break these down. I’m not suggesting focus groups or polling for attitudes. We need practical research that involves experts and people working together to identify what works for individuals and communities — and what doesn’t. We have millions of smart‚ creative professionals who spend their time and billions of dollars figuring out how to get consumers to buy the latest car or embrace the next mobile phone. Imagine if we could get these same folks to apply their energy and talent toward convincing consumers to embrace a more sustainable way of life.
Until that happens, however, we can’t assume that anyone will want to manage their energy use just because some new gizmo offers them a window into the smart grid, or that we’ll rush to retrofit our homes and office buildings on the promise that it will save us money down the road. And we can’t count on massive behavior change based on a collective realization that we need to change in order to preserve the planet. What we need to do is come up with a practical means of shifting mindsets across cultures. We need both innovative tools and motivation for implementing them in a way that works for real people.
Al Gore often quotes an African proverb: “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” When it comes to combatting climate change, we need to go far together — but we need to act quickly. In other words, we must collectively work toward understanding our own behavior on a global scale — and figure out what it will take to prompt rapid, widespread adoption of a new way of living. We can jump-start the clean-energy revolution and address the challenges of a resource-constrained world if we work together. Let’s get to it!.