Nature Climate Change has wandered into political science with a study from Stanford University. Seth Werfel’s examination of the “crowding-out” effect — the idea that humans have a tough time pursuing more than one strategy to solve a problem — is worth considering, even if its finding aren’t exactly earth-shattering.
The problem is laid out right off the top and requires no further explanation:
Household actions and government policies are both necessary to mitigate the effects of climate change. However, household behaviour may crowd out public support for government action by creating the perception of sufficient progress. … Further evidence suggests that the crowding-out effect may have been driven by an increase in the perceived importance of individual actions relative to government regulation and a decrease in the perceived issue importance of energy and environmental sustainability.
The results of the study’s survey, which involved 14,000 Japanese living in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima meltdown, show only a “marginal” effect, and some of the confidence intervals are pretty wide. But the conclusion is yes, people do tend to ease up on making political demands after they’ve taken a few steps to address the problem at home. No surprise there.
It may seem a bit trite. Activists are forever bemoaning the apparent inability of the citizenry to walk and chew gum at the same time. “You want me to buy new light bulbs (again!) AND call my congressman?” As Werfel summed up existing thinking among social theorists:
When people consider progress on a single sub-goal, additional actions toward achieving a superordinate goal are less likely to be pursued unless prior actions establish commitment toward that goal.
But a couple of days after I came across the study, a piece in Slate magazine on a seemingly unrelated subject but with a similar theme got me thinking. In “Swim Lessons Won’t Keep Your Toddler From Drowning,” Melinda Wenner Moyer argues that too many parents treat swim lessons as sufficient when it comes to their responsibility for making sure their kids don’t drown. Instead of choosing supervision and lessons, they choose the latter alone and then return to their Instagram accounts. This despite the fact that drowning remains the leading cause of death from injuries among children between 1 and 4 years old.
The American Red Cross states that “the best thing you can do to help your family stay safe is to enroll in age-appropriate swim lessons,” which it starts offering at the tender age of 6 months. Yet the statistics are clear: Swim skills are simply not enough. Two-thirds of kids who drown, believe it or not, are excellent swimmers.
It’s not quite that simple, of course. Also playing a role is the tendency of many swim instructors to focus on technique and comfort levels instead of survival. The classes I took four decades ago were all big on staying alive (and I am happy to report that my offspring’s instructors this summer are still big on it), but apparently it’s not as top-of-mind as it used to be in all corners of the pool. It is another example, and one with even better stats to support it, of a mindset that doesn’t allow for complexity. There’s no doubt that the crowding-out effect is real.
So what do we do about this latest addition to the long list of psychological obstacles (motivated reasoning, confirmation bias, plain old laziness, etc.) to getting people to care enough about anthropogenic climate trends? For me, it all goes back to the same place: People have to be taught to be critical thinkers in a democratic society. I know, I know. We don’t have time for pedagogical reform. Not when we have to get our carbon emissions down to zero two or three decades. But there’s no reason not to harp away at the idea that it is possible to act on parallel strategies simultaneously.
Meanwhile, if people are going to be intellectually lazy, then we can at least try to ease their stress by being more selective about what we ask them to worry about. We need to pay more attention to those things that pose real risks and stop fretting about every imagined catastrophe. When it comes to our kids,
When it comes to our kids, unsupervised play about the water’s edge is relatively hazardous. Unsupervised fort-building in the woods, not so much. We can apply the same thinking to environmental messaging. We all need to be responsible for our carbon footprints and we need to keep our members of Congress aware that we know how much of their campaign war chests is sourced from the fossil-fuel lobby. But maybe we don’t need to worry so much about nuclear reactors.