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Conservation psychology - What's it gonna take?

On the recent Watt podcast panel discussion the group touched on conservation psychology a couple of times. Here is a paper I'm working on relating to conservation psychology and off grid RE systems.

The convergence of peak oil, topsoil depletion, freshwater shortages, and climate change require massive societal change in a short time. Can we make the necessary adjustments to our lifestyles in advance in order to learn to thrive with less but also possibly head off the worst effects of these converging challenges? If we accept that these threats are real then we have less than a decade to drastically cut levels of greenhouse gas emissions.

“...... the global output per head should be reduced to 0.537t by 2050. The UK currently produces 9.6 tonnes per head and the US 23.6t. Reducing these figures to 0.537t means a 94.4% cut in the UK and a 97.7% cut in the US. But the world population will rise in the same period. If we assume a population of 9bn in 2050, the cuts rise to 95.9% in the UK and 98.3% in the US.” (Monbiot 04/12/2007)

To paraphrase Einstein, you can’t solve a problem with the same level of thinking that created it. We
cannot consume our way out of over consumption.

Conservation Psychology

Conservation psychology is a growing field that is building on work done after the oil shocks of the 70’s and the first Earth Day. The spirit of optimism engendered by that event has faded as we realize things have gotten much worse since. In an article lamenting this situation in the American Psychologist in 1992 E.Scott Gellar stated that much of the psychological research done to study methods of stimulating behaviour change towards the environment produced strong successful recommendations. Unfortunately, much of that progress was abandoned because it’s theme,

“conservation through low-tech community based intervention has been typically viewed as incompatible with big business and consumer convenience” .

We crafted a society that is even more dependent on the unsustainable use of resources due to

“varieties of reinforcing consequences, including convenience, comfort, money.......” .

Gellar recommends

“the .... removal of contingencies currently reinforcing behaviours detrimental to the environment, as well as the establishment of new response - consequence contingencies to motivate the occurrence of behaviours beneficial to the environment.” (Geller 1992)

Wasteful behaviours need to become less convenient, less comfort producing, and more expensive. A simple experiment makes apparent that less wasteful behaviour can be made more desirable in terms of all 3 of the above contingencies.

The 5 gallon weekend challenge

Find a 5 gallon bottle for office water coolers and a source of water that involves some effort to procure, carry it up 3 flights of steps perhaps, 5 gallons weighs 40 lbs. Add to this a method whereby each bottle of water costs you £5. Use only water from that bottle for all your water needs, flush the toilet, brush your teeth, make your cup of tea, heat water on the stove for bathing, hand wash an item of clothing, whatever you need water for, use only the water from your 5 gallon bottle. Keep track of how many times you have to refill the bottle over the weekend.

After you have done this for the weekend you will begin to get an idea of just how little water you can get by on if you have to. You will not long carry 15 gals, 120lbs, of water up 3 flights of stairs. “Water conservation” will have a new meaning and value as the difference between a low flow shower head at 10litres/minute and a “low flow” bath with a kettle of water at 4 to 10 litres total becomes obvious. A low flow shower head, while addressing conservation on a minimal level, enables wasteful behaviour overall as there is no limit imposed on the amount of water available, you can always get more. Necessarily, during this experiment you would learn and practice a deeper level of conservation.

Without enforcing such draconian methods on a large scale what can be done to stimulate this level of conservation behaviour? Research into socially conscious consumption (SCC) indicates that it is linked to perceived consumer effectiveness (PCE) which involves a component of personal efficacy and competence. (Allen 1982) This is born out in a recent AEES thesis relating to customer motivations to install domestic Photovoltaic(PV) systems. Owners reported a “buzz” relating to having done the right thing.(Tainton 2008) Conversely, research done by K.M. Norgaard suggests that a sense of guilt and powerlessness brings about denial of the problems addressed by conservation and an unwillingness to attempt it.

Empowering people to take control of their resource use with an attendant level of understanding of the effects of their efforts on climate change would motivate them to reduce consumption. Methods of personal resource control must also break the disconnect between the perception of climate change as abstract and the use of resources in everyday life, a problem reported by Skogen in 1993 in his study of young Norwegians. (Norgaard 2006)

Personal consumption behaviour management?

“technological devices and products we use are in themselves potent sources of behavioural control...... Discrete physical properties of technologies and consumer products influence the ways in which they are used.” (Crabb 1992)

These properties have been named affordances. (Norman 1988) For instance, items that should be recycled are actually designed to be thrown away, increasing recycling opportunities does not address the inherent design flaw. Recycling is a failure to reuse which is a failure to reduce. Shouldn’t we encourage consumers to reduce first? Shouldn’t we direct our efforts toward the cessation of the manufacturing of

“countless gadgets and products that have no defensible place in a rational energy efficient society”? (Crabb 1992)

This would address not only the use of resources involved in the personal use of products but in the creation of the products themselves. It is easy to suggest this but how to put it in to practice?

If we were to suggest that to become more conserving we have to sacrifice many of our comforts and pleasures we would have few converts. Raymond K. De Young PhD, an associate professor of environmental psychology and conservation behavior in the University of Michigan's School of Natural Resources and Environment, states;

"If we begin the discussion by talking about how a constrained, austere life is an ecological necessity, people are going to get an image of freezing in the dark, they'll stop listening. People just don't resonate to that kind of information."

DeYoung’s work draws on positive psychology to suggest that we focus on the benefits derived from practicing conservation behaviour. He is convinced that emphasizing a simpler less frenetic life will enhance family relations and mental balance. This will tap into intrinsic motivations towards enhanced well being in the present. Conversely, promoting a sense of urgency and crisis with ramifications at some later date is likely to be less effective.

"It may very well be true that our future existence will be much more materially constrained than it is now, the way to 'soft land' there is to give it a positive spin." (De Young 2001)

Personal resource control and electricity

As promoters of renewable energy technologies we have a responsibility to consider the way in which these devices will be used. We should empower the consumer to take back control of their resource use so as to enhance their PCE and thus increase the chances for SCC. Unfortunately, current systems of resource delivery are designed to relieve us of control.

People don’t use electricity, they use devices which use electricity according to design parameters. Electricity to power devices can be delivered via the grid or batteries, typically a combination of both. The intricacies of the grid are unfathomable to most. Even amongst professionals there is no consensus about it’s efficiency and ability to respond to inputs from micro-generation. A child can understand battery basics. Battery based micro-generation systems involve consumer control in a way that is non abstract and applicable to everyday life. I believe they are empowering and increase the sense of personal efficacy and competence.

Conversely, grid tied micro generation is hands off technology providing little incentive for conservation. While stimulating some sense of efficacy as reported by Tainton, it is limited in this regard as it means surrendering the chance to control ones resources. Furthermore, the electricity produced is commodified by assignment of a currency value and lost to the producer rather than feeding a personal electricity store that is managed by the producer. The plethora of import and export tariffs, metering schemes, as well as the general complexity of the renewables obligation certificate (ROC) system stand in the way of conservation and in some cases reward increased consumption.

“....a tariff that pays the same for import and export but eliminates the standing charge by increasing the price of an initial number of units, encourages more consumption ‘in order to get the cheaper rate units’ ” (Tainton 2008)

Grid tied systems pander to consumer desire to avoid deep change. A marketing report from BP Solar states,

“Most potential grid tie customers are affluent consumers who pay no attention to their electrical usage.” (Green Energy Ohio 2007)

Typically grid tied micro-generation systems are installed by the affluent but research done by Keirstead in 2007 does indicate a reduction of overall consumption by 6% as well as a shift in demand to times of peak generation. (Tainton 2008). While positive, this level of demand reduction is insufficient to produce the overall demand reduction that is necessary to shut down power plants. Furthermore it indicates a resistance to deep change that would involve not only reducing the use of electrical gadgetry but the avoidance of their purchase in the first place and thus a reduction in manufacturing electricity and material resource use as well as transport. Conversely, large reductions in use must accompany the reliance on a small battery based PV system in order to keep the system affordable and extend the life of the batteries.

The triple bottom line

The concept of simple economic payback is often used to either justify or rule out the deployment of micro-generation systems. While we tout the triple bottom line, environment, economic, and social equity, in our deliberations on the commodification of carbon we ignore it in favor of a strictly financial approach to micro-generation. If this method is justified and applied to the purchase of electricity producing equipment it should likewise be applied to electricity using equipment.

1. Environment
The effects of grid tied micro-generation or efficiency improvements on GHG emissions are debatable. Until a large enough cumulative improvement is made to allow actual shut down of power plants there is likely no significant reduction in fuel use and therefore no significant reduction in emissions. (NREL 2006) The sooner and larger the reductions in personal consumption the better. Drastically reducing personal consumption through the use of storage based systems would produce larger reductions than continuing business as usual lifestyles with grid tied systems, particularly for the less affluent. The embedded energy and it’s attendant GHG emissions of all the gadgetry not purchased and therefore not produced is another plus.

2. Economic
Financial payback of a small PV/battery system designed to reduce electricity usage by at least 90%. Our model is based upon powering a few lights and a laptop computer.

Components of a 12V system:
• battery of at least 90Ah, large enough to handle a maximum 13Ah daily demand through the inverter without using more than 30% of battery capacity, thus avoiding shortening the life of the battery, as well as allowing for several very cloudy days.
cost £170 assuming replacement once in 25 years
• 200W solar panel, assuming UK average 75% of peak watts rating on panel producing a maximum 156watts/day or 15kWh/yr. (Boyle 2004)
cost £811
• 20A controller
cost £58
• 150W inverter to deliver electricity at 240V.
cost £48
Total cost of the system £1087 (Energy Development Co-operative Limited 2008)
15kWh/yr as supplied by the grid for 25 years assuming a minimal increase in price from 12p to 60p/kWh. @ 2p/yr = £151 or a less optimistic price increase of 3p/yr from 15p to 87p/kWh = £265 over 25 yrs, roughly 1/4 the cost of a small battery/PV system.

Since the system is sized to provide the maximum projected need there will be times when the excess allows other uses. But limiting the amount of uses necessarily limits the amount of devices to be used. Why buy 2 televisions if you can only run 1 some of the time? The benefit to the household budget of not owning multiple television systems, game consoles, desktop computer systems, household sized stereos, upright fridge freezers, cordless phones, hair dryers, electric kettles, and security systems to “protect” it all should also be figured into the equation.

2 television systems @ £1500, gaming console @ £300, 1 desktop computer @ £500, Hi Fi @ £500, Fridge Freezer @ £200, Cordless phone @ £80, Hair dryer @ £20, Electric kettle @ £30 (Curry’s 2008), and a Security system @ £400 will not be purchased. (Eagle Security Solutions 2008) (see appendices)
£3530 just for the first round of all this gadgetry. If we optimistically assume it will all be replaced just once in 25 years we are looking at £7060, this does not include the myriad of other electric devices found in a “normal” home. Furthermore, none of these devices except the computer has even a remote chance of producing a financial payback.

Choosing to live a simpler lifestyle using our small system for sole electricity will save us £6238 if we include the savings of the electricity not purchased. As the budget allows the system could be scaled up. Even if the system were trebled in size it would be less than half the capacity of the typical grid-tied installation (Tainton 2008). This would mean that for less resources invested per home, more homes could achieve much higher reductions in demand and we would have actual emissions cuts sooner.

3. Social Equity
Reductions in personal consumption of energy and resources in the developed world benefits the developing world not only by freeing up resources but also through mitigation of climate change. Additionally, the improvement in quality of life through the reduction in gadget behaviours should be considered. This is hard to quantify and does not fall within the scope of this paper but having personally lived this way, off grid in terms of electricity and water, for most of 5 years I can report closer ties with community and natural cycles, better family relations, more exercise and time spent planning, preparing and consuming meals, increased mental stimulation as well as more time for meditation and contemplation. I don’t recall ever being worse off for having missed episodes of “Lost”.


We face challenges heretofore unknown to current civilization. Our personal carbon footprints must be drastically reduced in an attempt to mitigate the worst effects of climate change. Without methods designed to empower individuals to take control of their own resource production and use now there is little chance to avoid widespread suffering as our lifestyles are forced to constrict later. Any technologies we deploy to help us address these challenges must maximize personal consumer effectiveness and thus encourage socially conscious consumption patterns.

• Excessive and wasteful behaviours need to become less convenient, less comfort producing, and more expensive. Improvements in quality of life should be emphasized when marketing this idea.

• People are most effective when empowered to control aspects of their own lives.

• Technologies come with design features which govern their use and therefore we should focus on those that most quickly accomplish our goals.

• The triple bottom line should be applied across the board to all facets of modern life, including micro-generation.

• Designing microgeneration systems around the concept of deep reductions in consumption means that fewer panels are needed to “remove” a home from the grid and also insures that far fewer electrical consumer goods will be purchased and used there. Therefore, more installations can take place with fewer resources involved and greater emissions cuts achieved.

Re: Conservation psychology - What's it gonna take?

I didn't include the saving derived from not purchasing the electricity to power all the gadgets mentioned. The 2000kWh/yr of electricity needed to power these, as supplied by the grid for 25 years assuming a minimal price increase of 3p/yr from 6p to 78p/kWh = £21,000.
Choosing to live a simpler lifestyle using our small system to provide all our electricity will save us £26,973. As the budget allows, the system could be scaled up. The panels from one typical grid tied installation at 3kW could go to 15 of these small 200W systems. This would mean that for less resources invested per home, more homes could achieve higher reductions in demand and we would have actual emissions cuts sooner. Instead of one home making 6% reductions in demand, we’d have 15 homes making 99% reductions.

I understand that this proposal will be perceived as extreme and very difficult to enact. My personal experience is to the contrary. I believe that if we don’t make these difficult changes by choice we are likely to be forced into them by circumstance.


Re: Conservation psychology - What's it gonna take?

In some ways that assumes the worst in people. I found a better low flow shower head (my 15 year old ones died) at Home Hardware and it's rated at less than 2.5gpm - and they're right. I can now shower with less water than before. It takes 1.5L of water in order to get warm water and then I shower in about 3L of warm water.
I see no point in solar hot water heating system - it could never pay for itself (we use $70/year in electricity heating water) and if we had to do without - we would.
The way forward is with simplicity - doing without. Not only must be radically reduce the gadgets in our lives - but also change our behaviour. I liked that bit about carrying the water. I know people who use more water showering than they would if they took a bath. They see drain water heat recovery as a god-send; as they now have endless hot water. I cringed with a co-worker used geothermal; and they took our the gas fired water heater (the home is having it's natural gas feed removed - for my home about 1/4 of our total gas bill is the connection fee!) and replaced it with a monster 40 gallon electric water heater - that will take preheated water from the geothermal unit!!! Crips - I put in a 19 gallon heater - and only that big because I wanted enough water for the kids to have a bath (or myself at times).

What will it take? An awful lot for people to change. Can they? They've never seen adversity in their lives. I've had a pampered life and will never have the economic or energy freedom that my parents did in the 60's, 70's, 80's. Building 4,000 sq-ft homes; changing to a new car every few years - and buying big cars at that...

I don't see price as changing how people act. Prices have not factored in the actual cost of non-renewable resources; or using armies to maintain access. We will see rationing first - and perhaps that will do something. If I hear of another moron complaining about gasoline at $1.30/L (Canadian) I'll start throwing stones (my house is not made of glass - it's sugar!). Really - if these people looked at the cost of their vehicle; they'd realize that the cost of fuel is minor - minor compared to the purchase price, or the cost of maintance, or insurance and licensing.
For my home it's utterly unreal - $600/year in energy (gas, water, electricity) and around 5x that for taxes and insurance. There is no incentive to conserve really. Double or triple energy costs and I still would not care. But brownouts or rationing of gasoline or the natural gas pressure dropping so low that the furnace kicks out - that would result in panics - and hopefully some changes.

Re: Conservation psychology - What's it gonna take?

Hey Eric,
For me the triple bottom line has to apply in all cases, even $70 worth of electricity creates a demand on the grid, demand on the grid is used to justify nuclear or worse coal fired power plants. Solar hot water is easily DIY'ed. Having said that, I am currently locked into the grid by living in someone else's house. Hopefully within a year or so I will be moving towards getting off grid again.

You are right about it being utterly unreal, when the externalities are factored in and we are paying the true costs in the bill instead of taking it from our children and grandchildren perhaps we will change, I fear that by then it will be too late. The rest of this comment is from a post I placed on my blog today.

Much of the science suggests that a 2ºC rise in global temperature is locked in, with it's attendant sea level rise, impacts on water scarcity and food production. All those impacts will be a fond memory to your grandchildren as they begin to experience 5ºC to 7ºC rises due to our negligence. The rising tide of information has washed away the sand from our buried heads. We won't be able to say "Oh we didn't know, the Fox channel didn't tell us about it", what will be crystal clear is, we knew and we didn't care. We chose to burn food, over-heat and cool our homes, over-consume anything we could get our hands on, spend our resources building theme parks instead of solar and wind power plants, we even chose to build more coal fired power plants and removed mountaintops so we might never have to risk missing an episode of "Lost"!
As we did so, the rich got richer, the poor got poorer, and millions of people died, as well as most of the wildlife on the planet.

To quote the Tragically Hip "Desperate times call for desperate measures"

Re: Conservation psychology - What's it gonna take?

My wife asked the question - if we spent $5k - what could we do to show green values to our neighbours. My answer was nothing. That was the cost of a Solar hot water system - but it would save us perhaps $25/yr (note - we were on natural gas - but the pilot light was $75/yr - heating water was $15/yr - we moved to electric and it costs us slightly less ($20/yr to keep the tank hot - about $50/yr heating water - before we Bullfrogged - but the GHG emissions are now slightly more; even though the energy used is a fraction of what it was - and we'll put it on a timer at night only when we get a smart meter - that'll save us money, but not energy) for an investment of about $4500. Our house is semi-detached and we have the north facing part.
I briefly thought of solar PV until I saw the incremental price of a grid inter-tie inverter! Solar PV, like wind (we very very briefly considered a roof mounted turbine) needs to be done big - >$20k.
Oddly enough in the winter we let the house go down to 15C - and 18C feels cold. This time of year 18C feels tolerable (due to humidity?). I have friends who remember being young, and waking up with the bedpan frozen in the mornings. It's possible to make due with much less heating.
We're considering building a custom straw bale home (about 1,100 sq-ft for a family of 4) and I'm tempted to zone it - so that the upstairs (bedrooms) is simply unheated by default and insulated from the rest of the house. The snag is that no furance will tolerate heating such a small space!
If only our co-housing project would take off - but it seems to be very hard to attract people to such a thing in Canada.
In the end though; we sink or swim together. Nobody builds a fortress and survives by themselves - at least not for several generations.
This summer I'm trying Indian "ornamental" corn. The 'coons will likely not bother with it - and I'll grind the corn to make flour in the winter. There hasn't been much movement to traditional diets yet.
This TED talk by Mark Bittman is interesting - but he called a local food diet (outside of California) a joke:
The fact is it may soon become a reality.

Re: Conservation psychology - What's it gonna take?

We have a tiny victorian terrace with excellent southern exposure. We spent £4000 on a conservatory which heats the house and gave us a extra room, allows us to start our planting much earlier, and was recently figured to have raised the value of the house by £5000.
If I had $5000 to spend here is my list of priorities;

Increase the passive solar capacity of your house and maximise it's efficiency. If you have any part of your house that faces S, SE or SW build a conservatory there, self build if possible. Build vestibules, increase thermal mass, insulate, make thermal blankets for windows, etc.

Plant the biggest garden you can with composting and rainwater harvesting.

Self build a small stand alone (not grid tie), portable, battery based PV system and work hard to rely on it for as much of your power needs as possible. 200 to 600W should do, this will stimulate much larger changes in consumption behaviour than grid tie and will thus save more money on electricity and in avoidance of the purchase of extra devices. Since it is portable you will be able to take it with you when you build your straw bale home and you will be used to living at that scale by then.

Self build a small, again portable, stand alone (independent of your current hot water system) solar hot water system with integrated shower. Same principle applies as above.

Stop eating ruminant meat and dairy products.

Turn your home into a demonstration home for all of the above, get your neighbors on board, start a community building scheme; food growing and trading, energy production, car sharing, efficiency assistance.

I would bet you could do most of the above for under $5000.
I don't know you but think of how much you would spend on devices and household features that produce very little if any payback and yet you justify those don't you, as do we all; televisions and thousand other unnecessary devices, lawns and lawnmowers, a new car, foreign vacations, etc. Now think of the money spent on energy to use and produce them. Eliminate them from your life and budget and it begins to add up pretty quickly. Think of the $5k as an investment in your future, much like an advanced degree, by getting started on the path to energy/food self sufficiency the dividends will be enormous down the road, financial, quality of life and environmental.

Re: Conservation psychology - What's it gonna take?

thanks a lot for this articlle

Re: Conservation psychology - What's it gonna take?

my pleasure, it gave me a good reason to review all the great comments.

Re: Conservation psychology - What's it gonna take?

Local public and private organizations were asked to come together to help find ways to protect and manage local land, plants, and animals. Other discussions came to whether people on an individual or community level would voluntarily choose to become involved in maintaining and protecting their local biodiversity.

Re: Conservation psychology - What's it gonna take?

I believe that people want to conserve.

The problem is that the environmental issues are very complicated. The scientific community tends to be afraid to give a straight yes or not answer unless they have peer support. The scientific community is also always looking for support to research new ideas. The environmental movement is lead not by scientist, but by do gooders that have no idea of science. The result is a very mixed message. A few years ago, some environmentalist have been pushing corn ethanol as the holy grail to save the planet. Today it is considered a great threat to the environment. Consumers need a clear but honest message.

In the case of Global Warming, I have changed my mind many times. I now believe that there is Global Warming and that man is causing Global Warming, but many of the dooms day scenarios are wrong. I find that today there is too much politics involved in the Global warming issue.

The majority of scientist are on side with the Global Warming message because cause they want funds to research Climate Change and want to be on message with their peers. Most of them are not climatologists. Some scientist are paid by the coal and oil lobbies to reject Global Warming. Some scientists and politicians claim to be experts in Global Warming. They are not. They make outrageous claims for political reasons. Some scientist do their homework and dispute these claims. With all the politics involved in Global Warming, it is no suprise that Americans have doubts on Global Warming, while Europeans believe in Global Warming.

Over time, the consumer will eventual come to a conclusion on what needs to be done and do want is needed. In the mean time the less propaganda the better.