Rather than waiting for laws, proponents of a low-carbon lifestyle have been carefully nudging and socially pressuring energy efficiency and conservation into the national conscience.
The White House vegetable garden was a nudge by example. Communities from California neighborhoods to college dorms have kicked that up a notch with direct social pressure, sharing energy use numbers so residents know who the neighborhood energy hogs are.
Smart meter advocates are hoping to nudge a little more by making real-time energy-tracking meters the default during renovations and home construction, meaning homeowners wouldn't have to go to any effort to opt in, only to opt out.
"Nudging" is Cass Sunstein's term, and it's increasingly being heard in Washington. The Harvard professor and former University of Chicago colleague of President Obama's is one of several behavioral economics experts now advising the president, and he is Obama's choice for regulations chief.
Sunstein is also an expert in the importance of choice architecture – putting the fruit at eye level in a cafeteria line, for example, and the cake somewhere less prominent; it's free choice, with a nudge in the healthier direction. The same thing can be done with energy choices.
It's how the options are framed that matters.
The most successful nudges make the preferred choice – energy efficiency in this case – the default, so by doing nothing, people are automatically taking the route of action, the way some businesses automatically enroll employees in 401k programs and require action to opt out.
Defaults are already useful in saving energy – lights that automatically turn off when there is no motion in the room, for example. In a few German towns, the street lights are kept off unless residents turn them on using their cell phones; the tiny town of Morgenroethe-Rautenkranz saves more than $5,000 a years with the technology.
Smart meters could easily become a default for construction – one that pays off for the homeowner in monthly utility payments, for the utility in peak use reduction, and for the climate in lessening levels of CO2.
This all builds up to using social pressure as a nudge that can be harnessed for doing good.
We all know how easily people are swayed by their peers' behavior, so what if "keeping up with the Joneses" wasn't about sporting the latest fashion but rather about having the most efficient use of energy?
It's already being tried in several cities, to remarkable success.
In the UK, British Gas and the Institute of Public Policy Research just wrapped up a yearlong social experiment in energy savings via competition and peer pressure called Green Streets. The company provided $44,000 to the families on eight UK streets to be spent on energy efficiency measures, plus the advice of British Gas experts and smart meters. The winning street was promised an additional $73,000 for efficiency work.
The participants cut their CO2 emissions by an average of 23% and their energy use by 25%. IPPR estimated that if all UK households did the same, the savings could be nearly $6.8 billion.
The key wasn't a financial incentive, IPPR found – it was the social incentive. Each street wanted to win, and the competition brought neighbors closer together. They could boast about their energy savings while also encouraging one another to get moving.
Psychologist Robert Cialdini and his colleagues tested the theory of social influence on energy use in San Diego. They placed door hangers on homes each week for a month telling the residents one of five things: that there are ways to save energy; that they could save money by conserving energy; that they could save natural resources by conserving energy; that they would be socially responsible by conserving energy; or that the majority of their neighbors tried regularly to conserve energy.
Which families actually cut their energy use? The ones who were told that their neighbors were conserving energy ended up saving almost 2 kilowatt-hours per day.
California State University psychologist Wesley Schultz tried another experiment in which he shared energy use comparisons with homeowners in San Marcos, Calif. Some of the participants also got a smiling or frowning face on their bills: smiling if the home's energy use was below average, frowning if its energy use was above average. The families with higher than average energy use tended to cut back. Those that saw they were using less than average tended to use more in response – unless they had a smiley face, apparently giving them a social seal of approval that worked.
The University of Indiana and several other schools have cut energy use by starting dorm-to-dorm competitions that pile on the same peer pressure.
The city of Berkeley, Calif., is making reducing one's CO2 footprint really social – it launched low-carbon support groups earlier this year. Just like Weight Watchers, your friends are cheering you on, and no less than your ego and reputation are at stake if you fail.
The success of these programs suggests a message that President Obama can seize on this year, and one that psychology and marketing experts would both recommend: Your neighbors care about the future, and they're doing their part by cutting their energy waste, why aren't you?