You’re turning down plastic knives and forks at Pret. You’re putting your recycling into the right bin at home. You’re carrying a water bottle wherever you go. Yup, like most of us, you’re probably doing your part to solve the plastic crisis.
We’re all much more aware of plastic than we were three or four years ago. In the past year alone, Sir David Attenborough rallied us from the Pyramid stage, and the Government pledged to eliminate all avoidable plastic by 2042.
How did this happen? What’s made us all catch on to the plastic problem so quickly? So much more quickly, in fact, than the carbon problem? (The Government has set its sights lower there, pledging to reduce carbon emissions 80% by 2050.)
Let’s see what behavioural science has to tell us.
1.) We’re all prey to temporal discounting
We care about things in the present more than things in the future. With plastic, it’s easy to show the problems today from the things you threw away yesterday: a straw in a turtle’s nose, plastic packaging wrapped around little paws, bags eaten by whales. We see these things on TV and instantly understand the impact of our actions. It’s trickier with carbon: there’s no immediate image, and the consequences seem a long way off.
2.) We want an ‘identifiable victim’
Issues are more real to us if we can see who’s affected. So those whales and turtles? We care about them. Carbon emissions will affect everyone, everywhere. But that’s part of the problem: it’s too big to get your heads around.
3.) We’re all social signallers
We want to be seen to be doing good. And plastic wins when it comes to small signals: metal straws, coffee cups, tote bags. When it comes to carbon reduction, it’s trickier to send out signals: driving an electric car or cycling to work is a bigger lifestyle change than buying a reusable cup.
4.) We give ourselves moral license
Being good in one regard lets us be bad in another. Let’s say you want to check our the new zero-waste shop that’s opened nearby. You grab your containers, you check Google maps, you look out the window and - oh it’s raining. So you drive. Do you feel bad about driving? Maybe not: you’ve been good with plastic, so you can be a bit bad with driving. Scale that up across every small anti-plastic action you take in a year, and you’ve probably justified your long haul holiday flight!
So what’s the answer? If plastic has tapped into a certain way of thinking, how can carbon do the same? Here’s my advice to anti-emissions environmentalists:
- Be tangible. Stop talking about potential changes to numbers people don’t understand: ‘a one and a half degree increase in global temperature’? I can’t picture it. ‘Metric tons’ and ‘parts per million’? I don’t understand it. We’re not great at maths as a species: make it easy for us. (Like Earth Overshoot Day, which makes the figures as easy to understand as spending your salary before you’ve earned it.)
- Be definite. What’s the one behaviour you want me to do, every day? (Ideally something small that I can use to signal to others - planting trees isn’t so easy to bring up in conversation.)
- Be present. Show us what’s happening now, not what will happen in the future. Talk about cities struggling to breathe, or animals that have gone extinct. Or tell us the story of one family facing a flash flood - it’ll hit home harder.
Of course, the best bit is that reducing plastic reduces carbon too. So we’re moving in the right direction already - but with a few behavioural nudges, we could move faster.