Ocean Mist

Issues and trends shaping our environment, health and economy

27 Apr 2013

Default to green

Posted by Michael Keating

Inertia, call it laziness, has long been seen as one of the great barriers to a transition to sustainability. People can be slow to change to greener options when the benefits are longer term, and the change may take some effort and introduce some uncertainty.

Cass R. Sunstein, a former U.S. government administrator, says that too often people continue practices that are hard on the environment simply because this is the way they have always done things. Mr. Sunstein says society needs to change the default rules so that the normal option for many decisions is a greener one.

As a simple example, he said a university switched the default setting on its printers to double-sided printing and saved more than seven million sheets of paper in one semester. He recommends applying this type of approach to issues like energy, where people would automatically be signed up for green energy unless they opted out.

He said this is a way to help overcome our normal inertia, procrastination and fear of losing something by making changes.

In an article in The Globe and Mail http://www.theglobeandmail.com/commentary/what-if-we-were-green-by-default/article11579431/ he wrote: “Green default rules have the advantage of maintaining freedom of choice, but they also promise to protect the environment, save money, increase energy independence and reduce energy use. They ensure that, if people do nothing at all, they will act in an environmentally friendly fashion.”

He said that green default rules may be a more effective tool for altering outcomes than large economic incentives, but need to be chosen in a way that considers people’s welfare as well as the environment, and does not unfairly impose costs on people who will have a hard time paying.

Mr. Sunstein, a professor at Harvard Law School, was the administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in the Obama administration from 2009 to 2012. He also co-authored a longer paper, Automatically Green: Behavioral Economics and Environmental Protection, with Lucia Reisch of the Copenhagen Business School.

It can be found on the Social Science Research Network at http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2245657.

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