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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.