Creating the Norm of Environmental Altruism

Given the bias in favor of our own immediate welfare, when push comes to shove we aren’t terribly altruistic when it comes to sacrificing our habits, conveniences, and satisfactions for the sake of those who will inherit the earth, even our children.

The Need for Environmental Altruism

Most of us, if asked, would say we support the idea of long-term environmental sustainability and thus the need to control global warming. We’re well aware from the recent series of reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that unless we take immediate action the world won’t be a particularly friendly place for our children. The choice is increasingly stark: change our energy consuming and carbon producing ways now, or face a future of vastly reduced possibilities for much of humankind, not to mention other species facing extinction. Intransigently, the Bush administration still opposes any mandatory steps to combat global warming, and indeed is still trying to play down the seriousness of the problem.

But the administration simply does what we let it get away with. Many of us would have to admit that we’re not doing everything we could to avoid environmental collapse. Most of us don’t spend much time or money seeking to influence our leaders to make sustainability their first priority, retrofitting our homes and appliances to be more energy efficient, reconfiguring our diet to reduce meat consumption, recycling intelligently and thoroughly, or doing much else in service to the future. Our intentions are good but our actions fall short.\

This isn’t surprising, since as the burgeoning research in behavioral economics and choice theory shows, we are creatures for whom immediate payoffs have greater motivational salience than deferred benefits, even if our future selves are the beneficiary (see for instance George Ainslie’s tour de force Breakdown of Will). Given the bias in favor of our own immediate welfare, when push comes to shove we aren’t terribly altruistic when it comes to sacrificing our habits, conveniences, and satisfactions for the sake of those who will inherit the earth, even our children. For an incisive evolutionary explanation of why we’re so myopic about global warming, see Daniel Gilbert’s LA Time’s op-ed, If only gay sex caused global warming.

What to do? How can we become more altruistic, as measured by behavior that proves we value the future as much, or nearly as much, as the present?  We must first admit that left to their own devices individuals can’t and won’t do it on their own, since they’re strongly biased toward the selfish present. As much as Mr. A’s intentions might be good, he’s simply not in a position to bootstrap himself into a future-oriented, other-oriented lifestyle. Mr. A – that is, you and me and every other self-interested individual – needs help in shifting their priorities, and right away. The creation of altruistic personal will, the basis for altruistic political will (Al Gore’s favorite renewable resource) can’t be left to chance. 

In short, we have to become intentional and explicit in the project of collective self-control on behalf of the planet. This calls for the application of behavioral technology – behavior tech for short – at the community, corporate, governmental, national and international scales to make the future our top present priority. The primary goal of behavior tech related to sustainability is figuring out how to incentivize action on behalf of the future, which includes you as an octogenarian, your children, and your children’s children.

What are some elements of behavior tech, and how might they be mobilized?  Obvious examples are economic policies which provide financial incentives, positive and negative, that shape the behavior of individuals and corporations in altruistic directions. Increasing the cost of producing carbon emissions by means of a carbon tax incentivizes exploration of cleaner energy sources and manufacturing processes. Likewise a gas tax would have an immediate effect on the driving habits and car-buying behavior of millions of individuals. Of course such policies must be tuned so that the burdens are born fairly (e.g., low income drivers should qualify for a mileage based tax rebate) otherwise resentment will undermine compliance. But the basic rationale isn’t controversial: people and corporations can and will change their behavior quickly in response to changed financial contingencies. The big obstacle, though, is getting people to actually adopt polices that raise their cost of living in order that future generations might thrive. This is where engineering altruism comes in.

Fortunately, economic incentives aren’t the only tools available to behavior tech. We’re also acutely sensitive to peer pressure and threats to our public reputation. We want to be perceived as cooperators and good citizens, not shirkers or free riders. And as researchers in evolutionary psychology suggest, the easiest way to be perceived as a cooperator is to actually cooperate, sincerely and enthusiastically. The best way to burnish your reputation for good deeds is, unsurprisingly, to do the deed. This dynamic comes into play whenever we’re engaged in a collective project that depends on individuals contributing their fair share, whether you’re on a team developing new software at Google, raising a barn, or fighting a forest fire. Financial incentives may well play a role, but being seen as a contributor to the common good is also a powerful behavior-shaping incentive.

The problem for the planet, however, is that we live in largely anonymous communities in which one’s personal reputation isn’t particularly in play when it comes to action on behalf of the environment. Most people don’t know about your energy consumption habits, about how often you badger your local representatives about climate change, or whether you’ve joined a carpool. In short, there’s no reputational cost to you (or me) for not behaving altruistically with respect to the future. We’re therefore all tempted to be free riders, playing lip service to our undoubtedly good intentions while failing to actually act. 

One behavior tech solution is to make our climate-related actions, and thus our environmental reputations, visible to one another. The motivational power of maintaining a good rep is brought to bear to make altruistic behavior more likely. Put bluntly, the threat of being seen as a shirker gets you off your butt. But how might this work, concretely?  One possibility, sketched below, is to organize climate commitment groups which leverage each participating household’s desire for a good reputation. The group sets goals for action and then monitors each household’s compliance, in a friendly, cooperative, but somewhat competitive framework. As the sketch suggests, local groups could vie with each other to achieve the best climate action score, as could communities, towns and states, under the aegis of something like a Coalition for Collective Responsibility.

Maintaining your rep isn’t the only motivational benefit of belonging to such a group or coalition. More positively, there are substantial intrinsic rewards of being a team member, of working for a goal much larger than oneself – a healthy planet. As much as we’re hard-wired to be competitive, we’re hard-wired to enjoy collaboration too. Joining forces with neighbors in something like a commitment group gives expression to this side of our natures, too often left untapped in faceless urban or suburban communities. The rewards of teamwork will help compensate for the personal downsizing more expensive energy entails for ordinary folk.

The Case for Behavior Tech

At the most general level, behavior tech on behalf of altruism uses motivational engineering to balance our innate and uncontroversial desire for self-advancement with a strong, socially imbued regard for the interests of others located elsewhere in time and space. The thing to remember is that you won’t mind being more altruistic – it will simply be the comfortable, obvious, conventional thing to do. Why? Because the incentives are set up to make it feel that way. The social norm won’t any longer be the mad pursuit of all possible personal advantages, but the artful balancing of the personal vs. collective within one’s own motivational psychology. How to achieve that balance isn’t obvious, but requires researching and investing in behavioral technology that can be applied at all scales, from the personal to the transnational. There exists, therefore, a potential market for behavior tech firms and consultants whose expertise can be tapped by communities, states and nations to ensure that we have a future worth wanting. Given the huge dollars spent on high-tech and bio-tech, a little attention to acquiring proven behavioral technology for self-control seems warranted. It might even prove profitable – venture capitalists take note.

Such intentional large-scale self-management might seem to raise the specter of coercive control, with citizens deliberately managed to become obedient altruists. But, if we are naturalists, we know that behavior is always and everywhere shaped by conditions, so it isn’t as if you’re not already controlled in what you do. The question rather, as B F Skinner understood long ago, is what the controlling conditions will be and what sort of behavior they produce. Will they be such to motivate us to sacrifice some short-term comforts and conveniences for the sake of future generations?  Will they induce us to put irresistible political pressure on the administration to enact immediate mandatory curbs on carbon emissions? Or will they simply reinforce the motivational status quo? Not to deliberately manage incentives in order to balance our priorities might be to doom the planet.

The project of assuming intentional self-control in a representative democracy, far from being coercive, is by its very nature transparent and voluntary. Everything is open and on the table. We understand and accept the premise that human behavior is a function of genetically acquired dispositions as modulated by social conditions. We understand clearly what’s at stake for the planet if we – including especially our leaders – don’t change our ways soon. We know that given the right incentives - financial, reputational, collaborative and otherwise - we can change our ways to avoid a climate catastrophe that will force our hand anyway, very unpleasantly. So to undertake the intentional design of conditions that create and sustain personal and political altruism isn’t a threat to our autonomy, but rather the expression of it. And besides, we can count on libertarians to keep behavior tech honest, devoted as they are to the summum bonum of self-interested personal freedom. Unless, that is, they all decide to move to Alaska and secede – a risk we’ll just have to take.

TWC, May 2007