By Dom Nozzi
January 14, 2017
I recently participated in a Facebook discussion regarding the huge environmental impact of air travel.
Many people rightly have serious concerns about the enormous environmental impacts of flying. Many are so concerned that they advocate a strict prohibition on such travel.
Since reading the book Nudge, by Richard Thaler (2009), however, I have become a much stronger advocate of “nudging” people towards socially desirable objectives. Nudging retains choice for those who must have that choice, but makes it more difficult or costly to opt for socially undesirable options (such as less obligatory behavior including recreational travel).
Thaler cites the example of elevator and stairs location: the elevator should be less visible and hidden away when you walk into a front door. The stairs, which are more socially desirable than an elevator, should be right at the front door.
Command economies (think prohibition laws in the Soviet Union) ignore the fact that it is necessary to give some people the choice to do certain things, and the Soviet example shows that commanding instead of nudging is not particularly sustainable or compatible with human nature and human needs.
I say these things as someone with an environmental science degree, and as someone who has lived life with a very, very small ecological footprint (never owned a car, no kids, low-meat diet, etc.).
It HAS been very tempting to me to outlaw things that are environmentally harmful. But I have come to learn that as painful as it might be, we must allow for choices.
We just need to make less desirable choices less easy.