Breaking: High prices more persuasive than insistent nagging

For years, environmentalists have employed what might best be called the Nudge Model of persuasion. The conversation went like this:

Enviro: C’mon guys! Global warming! Stop driving those big cars. Pleaaaaaaase? C’Mon.”

American: Uh, right. Look, could you get that clipboard out of my face? I have people coming over, and I need to set the table with my plastic plates, take a 30-minute shower, and crank up the  air conditioner.

[Gets into Dodge Durango. Revs engine for Indy 500 effect, and screeches out of parking lot].

Enviro: But… but… C’MON!

Now, though, with gas prices over $4 a gallon, and with $5 and $6 well in sight, well! Now we’re seeing some changes  (quotes below taken from the articles linked):

• “Car Buyers Downsize, spend big on options“, NYT, 7/17/08, “I’ve never seen anything like it,” Mr. Smith said. “You don’t have too many people saying, ‘It has to be white with a power package and it has to have Michelin tires.’ Instead it’s, ‘What do you have and can I get it by the end of the month? Just get me out of my Tahoe.’”

• “With Gas Over $4, Cities Explore Whether It’s Smart to Be Dense“, WSJ, 7/7/08, “Expensive oil is going to transform the American culture as radically as cheap oil did,” predicts David Mogavero, a Sacramento-based architect and smart-growth proponent.”

• “Wal-Mart goes local“, Clean Tech Group, 7/2/08, “Through better logistics planning, better packing of trucks and local sourcing, the company expects to save millions of “food miles” each year, which it said is the distance food travels from farm to fork.”

• “Field Poll finds high gas prices change Californians habits, views“, Press-Enterprise, 7/17/08, “We do no weekend driving — we don’t go out,” said Charley Stillwagon, a truck driver and single father of five from Rancho Cucamonga. “If we feel like a movie, we rent one.”

• “Gas Prices Drive  Students to Online Courses“, Chronicle of Higher Education, 7/8/08, “It’s getting to the point of either gas or class,” says Robbie K. Melton, associate vice chancellor for the Tennessee Board of Regents.”

Not that any of it’s at all surprising that people respond more quickly to money than moral arguments. But with the policy question of how best to address CO2 emissions and water conservation still raging, environmentalists would do well to think about how economic tools can best alter behavior, rather than imply moralizing. Al Gore has done his work for us,  raising awareness on the issue. Now we have to fix it.

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3 Responses to Breaking: High prices more persuasive than insistent nagging

  1. Jives says:

    “I’ll do anything. I just gotta get out of my Tahoe.”

    So funny!

    I’ve read some economics reports that say the fuel prices are driving up the cost of other household expenses (electricity, heat, hot water, etc.) faster than the price of oil. It’s the fact that gas prices are so glaring because people literally watch the meter go up as the fill the tank. That’s why they’re desperate to get out of their cars.

  2. Eric Wolff says:

    that’s certainly true – the price of gas hits us in almost everything we do. But I’m pleased to see Americans reacting. If we burn less driving, that frees it up for other things.

  3. Mike says:

    This is a spot-on point, but what about the reaction of people who want to expand drilling in environmentally sensitive areas? McCain’s campaign, even though he cloaks it in “Green,” still pushes the idea that gas prices could and should be brought down so that people can go back to driving their Tahoe and Durango and Hummer SUV’s like they did in the “Good Old Days” before guilt.

    I think that people are taking home a message from the conservative campaign that this is a temporary, short-term problem and that long-term conservation of fossil fuel really isn’t necessary. We just need to find new sources of fossil fuels so that we can exploit them at the rate we did in the last 30 years.

    People hated Jimmy Carter for sounding the alarm. They hate Al Gore for bringing back Carter’s message. How would the situation be different if Reagan had continued Carter’s programs for developing alternate sources of energy. When Carter was president people looked at the energy problems as something artificial caused by the “Arabs who Hate America.” We only needed someone like Reagan who wasn’t afraid to stand up to those bullies (ignoring that Aramco was a largely American company,) and brought the price of gas back down. Conservation pretty much went out the window and people praised and thanked him for giving them back their huge cars.

    I think we are too fickle to take much courage from the trend. I wonder how many people are simply putting their guzzlers in storage until ANWR and the Atlantic Coast, and Los Islas Malvinas are pumping out enough oil to bring down prices?

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