One of the first questions a good social science researcher asks before starting a new project is, “What level of analysis is most appropriate to study this problem?” Should I focus on individuals, organizations, nation-states, or global dynamics? This question is also relevant to activists and change agents who want to solve social or environmental problems (social scientists don’t get tenure for that). These change agents must ask themselves where they should focus their attention and activities to have the biggest impact.
While I find Darshan’s trash experiment interesting, it raises the question of whether the energy required to become a “near-zero waste” person gives you the most gains in behavior change at an aggregate level. As a student of organizations, though, my bias is to focus change efforts at the meso rather than either the macro or micro-level. Anyone who has read the book Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein can tell you that if you want to change individual or aggregate behavior, you first have to focus on the “choice architects” who both intentionally and unintentionally shape the way we make decisions about waste. These people range from city council members, government program managers, project managers in package design at major corporations, and even University presidents. What they all have in common is they make decisions within governance systems that affect the way citizens, students, and consumers behave.
As Darshan mentioned in a previous blog, the differences between the choice architecture around waste in Chicago compared to Ann Arbor are gargantuan. Whereas my old office at UM had a tiny waste basket inside a huge blue recycling container and the streets were filled with recycling containers, few people think twice about throwing paper or plastic or glass into the trash in Chicago. I believe much of this behavior can be attributed to lack of cognitive reminders (like the UM trash bin) to be more conscious. The choice to recycle or discard is still left at the discretion of the individual at UM, but we’re “nudged” to opt-in to recycling since it’s so easy to do. For me, it’s impossible to talk about motivating individual waste reduction before addressing the infrastructure in place to promote it.
It’s true that extraordinary efforts by single individuals (like Darshan’s trash experiment) can inspire change in others around them, but in the case of waste and resource use, I’m not optimistic that even the most well-intentioned person living outside of places like Ann Arbor and San Francisco have the infrastructure at hand to be successful in such an endeavor. I don’t want to end on a pessimistic note, though. All hope is not lost. There are small groups of sustainability-minded citizens in almost every community (I’ve met some inspiring ones in Chicago). I encourage these passionate collectives to focus more of their efforts on partnering with local choice architects if they want to see greater change.