Monthly archive: July 2011

by Cecil Scheib


Why can’t a broader group of people be motivated to take personal action for more livable cities, more personally rewarding lifestyles, and reduced risk for environmental problems for their kids and grandkids? Why do only a small subset of the US population bother to take simple actions such as replacing light bulbs with CFLs, using reusable grocery bags, taking stairs instead of the elevator, eating less meat, carpooling/combining trips, or, for gosh sakes, turning off the lights and AC when leaving the house?

These are tough questions, but a common answer I’ve heard is: “Since people don’t think they can have an effect on such large problems, they are not motivated to try to have an impact”.

Maybe some folks say this and some don’t, but it leads me to consider an analogy with nationwide (or worldwide) economic issues such as national debts and widespread unemployment. You know, I can’t fix those things. I can’t get millions of people jobs, or pay off trillions in US government debt. There’s nothing I can do to help the economy. So I don’t bother trying to make money.

Of course, only a few people actually say this, but it still sort of cracks me up.

The difference here of course is in immediate effects vs long-term or indirect ones. Probably a better analogy would be the US personal savings rate, which is often practically zero if not negative – and is among the lowest in the world.

If Americans are so bad at looking toward the future – even when their own economic future is on the line – it’s not shocking that they can’t extrapolate from buying so much plastic packaging to the Pacific Gyre. But it also makes me wonder if the pat thesis that people are just overwhelmed by the scale of the problem truly has validity.

It also makes me wonder if there are better ways of motivating people.