Defaulting to a green planet: Being environmentally conscious by doing nothing

My office building, like many large office buildings, has a revolving door, whose primary purpose, I imagine is to conserve electricity. Unfortunately, on either side of the revolving door are a set of swinging doors. There is a not-so-conspicuous sign next to the most-used swing door asking people to please use the revolving door to conserve energy.

I constantly see people use the swinging door when there is no real reason--such as a lager unwieldy box or a visible handicap--to do so.

Why not lock the swinging door, only to be opened by the concierge in case there's a genuine need for it, such as a person on a wheel chair or a bulk mail delivery?

Americans (and citizens everywhere) need to be nudged, goaded, and downright propelled toward making smarter decisions about our environment. Yet, in the name of convenience and individual responsibility, we choose not to make even simple tasks such as this more environmentally friendly.

All recent evidence indicates that lessons from behavioral science can stimulate people to make better decisions regarding their own health, financial situation, and general wellbeing. The power of "nudges" toward desirable social outcomes is highlighted in reports released earlier this year by both the U.S. and British governments. For example, simply asking service members about retirement plan enrollment upon their arrival at military bases was seen to notably increase enrollment. A similar result was seen among student loan borrowers who were sent reminders to provide updated information to link their loan repayment plans to incomes.

Motivated by the success of these projects, the U.S. government plans to experiment with "defaults"--a more compelling form of nudges--by automatically enrolling military service members into retirement plans, with options to opt out. Here, the nudge consists of choosing the specific default that would allow people to make better decisions for themselves. Previous studies have shown that automatic enrollment can substantially increase the percentage of people investing in retirement, with opt-out rates averaging as low as ten percent.

In additional to personal wellbeing, set "defaults" can also inspire people to behave in ways that benefit the greater good. "Social outcomes are greatly affected by default rules, which establish what happens if people do nothing at all," wrote legal scholar Cass Sunstein and behavioral economist Lucia Reisch in one of the most widely-known studies on the subject. They showed that "green defaults" can have a major impact on the environment, even comparable to the effects of bans and mandates in some cases, and far larger than the influence of education and moral coaxing. Even more surprisingly, defaults are shown to have a greater effect than economic incentives.

Having grown up in India, a country that was too economically challenged to provide wads of paper napkins at restaurants or excessive air conditioning in sweltering rooms, I have firsthand experience with defaults. If we didn't carry reusable bags to the grocery store, our only option was to balance boxes of rice and bundles of herbs in our hands. There were simply no bags to be had - plastic or paper. We washed our hands after meals instead of wiping them in handfuls of napkins. Restaurants almost never offered napkins, but sinks were in plain sight.

While this was not so much due to environmental awareness as scarcity of resources, the end result was the same. And this is not just the case in developing countries. Most buildings in Paris and Montreal don't have air conditioning, and the ones that do don't blast frigid air that makes one reach for a sweatshirt on a 90-degree day.

An oft-cited example of a successful default rule is a 2007 Rutgers University experiment where changing the default printer setting from single-sided to double-sided reduced paper consumption to nearly half in four years. This is significant by any standard, but especially so compared to moral coercion, environmental education, and monetary penalties, which have little to no effect. If simple default settings can be the difference between wastefulness and conservation, why don't more institutions take the trouble to implement them?

The absence of set structures that encourage green practices bears similarities to the lack of frameworks that encourage physical activity in the U.S. In fact, many of the same attributes that discourage active lifestyles also prevent environmentally-friendly behavior: placing elevators front and center with "fire" stairwells tucked away out of sight, the scarcity of sidewalks, street design that favors cars and automobiles at the expense of pedestrians and bikers.

Active design advocates have made the case for building more attractive staircases in order to make people choose stairs over elevators for years. Studies have shown that making stairs more visible and accessible have a significant impact on whether they get used. Fortunately, many of the lessons from active design also work for environmental design.

Green defaults have also been shown to trigger the use of green energy sources in certain communities, in some cases even when the green default may be slightly more expensive. Why might this be? Giving up the default and choosing another option requires seeking information and finding alternatives, which acts as a deterrent. Currently, the default in most communities tends to be the non-green option for a number of reasons, including costs. This discourages people from letting go of the default and choosing an environmentally-friendly option, even in cases where individuals may be environmentally conscious.

But in an effort to steer away from fossil fuels, a growing number of California counties are directing consumers toward green energy by switching default suppliers from investor-owned utilities to programs which include renewable energy sources.

Community choice aggregates or CCAs, as these government programs are called, offer rates just shy of rates from competing utilities. The programs currently serve hundreds of thousands of people, with only a small fraction of households opting out of CCAs and reverting to utility companies (in a large area covering Marin and Napa counties, for instance, only one in five consumers made the switch back).

This is not the first time that default programs have been shown to successfully increase green energy use. While most German households have green energy participation of a mere one percent, two communities in the country have shown renewable energy adoption of well over 90 percent for several years. The reason: these two towns automatically enroll people in green energy programs, and households are required to opt out to choose another source.

Why do default rules work? One obvious reason is procrastination. Defaults relieve people of the responsibility to make an active choice. To give up the default rule and choose an alternative requires effort. This is especially true if the decision is a complicated one, which results in a temptation to delay it or not make it at all. Brain activity studies have indeed shown that in the case of complex questions, people generally stick with the status quo.

Another reason default rules work is suggestive power: people tend to have faith in the choice architects who devise such rules, and assume (often correctly) that the set default is morally, economically, or environmentally superior.

A third reason for the power of defaults is loss aversion: people strongly prefer to avoid losses, even more so than acquiring gains. Hence, something like a green default, which is expected to save them money in the long run, may be hard to reject, especially in combination with conscientiously making the morally right choice.

Defaults could also be put into place for less expensive utilities and services that don't require as much individual investment.

What if revolving doors were the norm? What if air conditioning was turned off when outside temperatures dipped below 70 degrees? What if you had to ask for paper napkins and plastic cutlery at the counter instead of grab a bunch from an ever-replenished supply by the sauces and condiments? And talking of sauces and condiments, what if you had to request those as well, so thousands of little plastic packets aren't dumped in the trash just because they were touched by a customer?

We should be doing more to capitalize on insights into human behavior to save our planet, for whose health we all bear collective responsibility.