Tuesday, March 22, 2011

On encouragement and reinforcement

It is natural for us to want to be told that what we are doing is good - hopefully, we want to be viewed as responsible, caring, loving and respectful to (at least some part of) this world. Some people will take this to mean that they will do whatever it takes to support their families, some may take this to mean that they will do whatever it takes to combat social injustice. Regardless, people want to be told that they are right, that they are doing good for themselves, their families and their communities, and hopefully our world. I would think that those interrogating new technologies want the encouragement of their peers and colleagues, even though to some of us those technologies as environmentally degrading. But it is clear that many if not most of our actions and behaviours are degrading the environment. How is it that people should be told that their actions are actually not in the best interest of the greater world outside of their families? How is it that we can change how people behave and change the social norms of what is acceptable?

Trash is a wonderful example of this. Many people may think that just making sure that your trash is thrown in a receptacle is good enough, and that that is the responsible thing to do. Putting trash in a receptacle means that you aren't littering, and that the containment of trash doesn't aesthetically degrade the surroundings. But trash is not a good thing, and the act of trashing is not a good thing. Poonam had the wonderfully simple idea of changing signage on trash cans - instead of having them say "Trash," she proposed that they should say "To Landfill." It seems like just a change of words would have a huge impact on people's behaviour and perception of their actions. I arrived at Georgia Tech just a couple of days ago, and one of the first things I noticed was this...

How wonderful! Not only are words being used, but pictures, impactful ones, are being used to hopefully get people thinking about their actions. I contacted the building manager, and he has now put me in touch with the administrator in facilities and operations to see what it took to do this, and how this change has affected behaviour of people using the receptacles.

I do believe that it takes "negative" images and thoughts and problems to encourage us to action. That is not a surprise. But how might we be open to criticism in our responses to these problems? This is a fundamental issue with environmentalism. In a technologically driven world, in a world based on natural resource extraction, our approaches to solving environmental and social issues are founded on these very principles. By encouraging these approaches and making people "feel good" about them, we reinforce ideas that just aren't sustainable. I struggle with this, and I wonder where the balance lies between the positive forms of encouragement ("What you are doing is good.") to negative forms of encouragement ("What you are doing is not good."). How do you tell people? How do you convince people? 

First of all, of course, I must be open to such criticisms, and if you have any, please, please tell me.

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