Changing Behavior Works
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Changing Behavior Works

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A quick note: there is much debate around whether we need stringent legislation to get out of the climate crisis. We can point to desegregation and smoking as examples to suggest that legislation is required to drive lasting societal change. In my view, we won't solve the climate crisis with either regulation or behavior change alone. This argument is a great example of a "false dichotomy." We need both, and moreover, there is a feedback mechanism between the two—positive behavior change will drive regulation, and vice versa, as I try to illustrate below. These are all topics hefty enough to fill the pages of many books; here, I focus on behavior change.

In this chapter, I want to show you that:

  • Collective behavior change is possible, and
  • It is impactful.

I've picked three examples, each on a very different time scale. The first two are historic ones that you might not have thought of as exemplifying "behavior change" until I described them here in that way. But it is the third one that is the most relevant, as it were, for what we are discussing here.

Over centuries: Child Labor

The Industrial Revolution was a time of great change. It had an incredible impact on a broad range of things ranging from daily life to labor economics and even developmental psychology. But arguably, one of the greatest shifts that occurred as a result of the IR was attitudes towards child labor.

Child labor is historically defined as work that deprives children of their potential and dignity and harms physical and mental development. During the IR, child labor increased substantially; in fact, J.L. and Barbara Hammond observed that "during the first phase of the Industrial Revolution the employment of children on a vast scale became the most important social feature of English life."

It wasn't that children never worked before the IR; they did, mostly for family or community subsistence. But as the IR occurred, their contribution became more explicitly valuable and measurable. Oxford Professor Jane Humphries estimated that by the early 19th century, England had more than a million child workers, of which 350,000 were between 7 and 10 years old. These children accounted for 15 percent of the total labor force.

Cartoon by Lewis Hine from the records of the National Child Labor Committee (U.S.) (1874-1940). Source:
Cartoon by Lewis Hine from the records of the National Child Labor Committee (U.S.) (1874-1940). Source: Library of Congress, public domain

Humphries' work revealed that throughout most of the 18th century, around 35 percent of 10-year-old working-class boys were part of the labor force; this rose to 55 percent in the period from 1791–1820 (when large-scale industrialization started), and to 60 percent in 1821–1850. Many of these children were orphans.

How the IR sparked a rise in child labor

There were many factors that contributed to the significant increase in child labor in the IR. One of them is the dramatic rise in single-parent households during this period; this was due to a variety of factors including wars, labor mobility, and so on, that strained fathers' links to their growing families. By the early 19th century, around a third of working-class children were from single-parent households. Mothers faced enormous pressure to send their children out for work to make ends meet; the majority of scholars agree that this plentiful supply of children increased child employment in industrial work.

And as the supply of children surged, so did the demand for cheap workers. Children were seen as ideal factory workers as they were obedient and submissive, unlikely to form unions, and were responsive to punishment. Additionally, new mechanization, expansions in production scale, and changes in work situations made children suitable workers; they could, for example, crawl through narrow underground tunnels in coal and metal mines that adults could not.

Doffers in Cherryville Manufacturing Co., N.C. (1909) Source:
Doffers in Cherryville Manufacturing Co., N.C. (1909) Source: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, public domain

This was, to say the least, not in kids' favor

For these children, work went beyond rote and obligatory to abusive and exploitative. Poet William Blake famously called the rural textile mills in which children worked the “dark satanic mills”. Indeed, even though long working hours had been the norm for agricultural and domestic workers long before the IR, the factory system was criticized for unhealthy and dangerous working conditions, harsh punishment, low wages, and long work days. Accidents including dismemberment were common because of unguarded machinery, and children were exposed to the threat of falling roofs, gas explosions, and so on in the shafts of mines.

Even when parents knew their children were being abused, their lack of power due to social hierarchies often meant they were unable to take any effective action. Children also felt pressured to continue working for the sake of their families, even when they faced violence at work. Apart from responsibility for family wellbeing, other motivators like supervision, competition for jobs, and threat of dismissal kept children disciplined.

The start of the end

The idea of six-year-old children toiling in textile factories outraged 19th-century reformers, and by the mid 19th century, employers began campaigning for a reduction in child labor for both philanthropic and strategic reasons. By promoting protective legislation, employers who could do without child labor would gain an edge over other competitors who couldn't; others thought the practice was morally wrong.

Their lobbying paid off, and in 1833, Parliament passed the first effective Factory Act prohibiting the employment of children under 9 years of age in textile mills, put in place limits on working hours, and required children to attend school. This was followed by the second Factory Act in 1844 that introduced more restrictions and raised the minimum employment age to eight. Further progress was made and by the end of Queen Victoria's reign, there was a marked improvement in child welfare.

The newly established laws, however, were far from the only reason behind child labor's eventual decline; it was likely that the Factory Acts only accelerated it. Other factors included compulsory schooling, a rise in male real wages, and technological advancements that reduced the need for tasks performed by children. Eventually, child labor was virtually eliminated when the productivity of parents in the free market increased enough for child labor to no longer be necessary to keep families afloat.

Change in attitudes

But apart from changes in workplaces and the enforcement of new laws that protected children, a shift also occurred in terms of attitudes towards child labor and how people valued childhood. Western culture began to see children as in need of proactive protection; furthermore, children's worth in the family rose above that of other members. The balance of power in the family reversed, in which the flow of economic resources went from parents to children and not the other way round.

Four-year-old Mary, who shucks two pots of oysters a day at Dunbar (1911). Source:
Four-year-old Mary, who shucks two pots of oysters a day at Dunbar (1911). Source: Library of Congress, public domain

Working men also began to embrace schooling for children and a stay-at-home wife as hallmarks of a desirable and respectable family. This became inseparable from their conception of what a proper family structure looked like, and soon, those in different ranks of society adopted this view as well. This family structure, in turn, became the heart of enlightened and civilized society.

This view persists in the Western world today, which has since taken many steps to combat child labor, perhaps most notably through international child protection laws. In 2020, all countries that are parties to the International Labor Organization (ILO) ratified Convention No. 182, which provides for the elimination of childhood slavery, trafficking, and forced labor. This was the first time in the organization's history that all its members had ratified a convention. Additionally, the International Program on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC), created in 1992, works with stakeholders all over the world to progressively eliminate child labor.

While child labor still remains a problem, particularly in developing countries, the ratification of Convention No. 182 and the establishment of other child labor laws signal shifts in attitudes towards child labor across the globe.

Over decades: Eating Your Veggies

Over the last twenty years, vegetarianism has gone mainstream. The number of people who identify as "wholly vegetarian" (all veggies, all the time!) has actually not gone up—according to Gallup, 6 percent of the population was vegetarian in 1999, and in 2018, 5 percent defined themselves as vegetarians. But what has changed is American attitudes towards meat and dairy consumption.

Nearly one in four Americans reported cutting down on their meat consumption in 2019, with most listing health and environmental concerns as their motivator, and other surveys have found even higher proportions of Americans cutting back on meat. Surveys have also shown that each new generation is less committed to the idea that eating meat is part of the American identity.

Evidence suggests that these changes in attitudes are already impacting behaviors and causing a change in the meat industry. Researchers in Canada have suggested that decreases in the country's levels of meat consumption are due to "meat minimizers," people who are making an effort to eat less meat. In the US, plant-based meat sales grew by 45 percent in the last year, and 15 percent of milk sales are now plant-based.

Companies are already taking note of the interest in alternatives to meat. 2020 saw $3.1 billion invested in the alternative protein industry, which is 4.5 times what the industry received just two years ago. Meat and dairy substitutes are much more broadly available, and not just at Whole Foods (aka Whole Paycheck)—alternative milks are available at 7-Eleven, Burger King has an Impossible Burger, and Taco Bell is debuting a Beyond Meat taco. Fine dining is taking note, too—Michelin-starred restaurant Eleven Madison Park has announced its intention to make its menu entirely plant-based.

Given that Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat are both less than 12 years old, this is a very remarkable shift.

I cannot end this example without making it very clear that I am not at all endorsing the alternative protein industry. It unfortunately falls into my least favorite category: finding highly engineered solutions to problems that can in fact have unpredictable planetary effects. I'd rather we just "ate more veggies" and reduced our portions, thereby simultaneously tackling the obesity crisis, the climate crisis, and the issues around eating more plants (there are, unsurprisingly, a few).

But the point here is around behavior change, and an increasing degree of vegetarianism is a great example.

In months: Work From [Not-the-office]

The concepts outlined in this book were, for the most part, fully formed in my mind by late 2019, when I wrote my first essay on the Amasia behavior change framework (version 1.0 had 5 Rs, not 4!).

I did not expect that we'd immediately find a real test case of what would happen to carbon emissions if we all began behaving differently. And then the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded, forcing massive behavior change on a global scale.

What happened?

Often, we enter into an attitude-behavior gap, where we want to make sustainable decisions but don't have the opportunities to execute them. For example, even if we wanted to work from home in 2017, we might not have been equipped with the technical capability to do so. Another issue we encounter is the collective action problem I mentioned earlier: the notion that our personal choices will not have a large impact, and so sustainable behaviors are therefore pointless. We were forced into massive change because of the COVID-19 pandemic—let's see what happened.

Reduction in air pollution in Europe. Source:
Reduction in air pollution in Europe. Source: European Space Agency, some rights reserved

In March 2020, many among us (with the exception of those who had to stay at their jobs to keep the world functioning) were forced to retreat to the safety of our homes and rarely, if ever, left for the better part of the next year. As a result, something astonishing happened: the world's daily emissions plummeted by 10-17 percent—a figure comparable to the reduction in emissions we are going to need year upon year to limit global warming to 1.5 ºC. An analysis of 69 countries' reactions to COVID-19 revealed that "changes in emission are entirely due to a forced reduction in energy demand."

The largest decline in emissions was seen in ground transport and aviation, dropping by 18.6 and 35.8–52.4 percent respectively. Emissions reductions were less drastic but still meaningful in the power and industry sectors, falling by 5 and 5.5 percent respectively. As expected based on our confinement, the energy we used in our homes increased slightly.

These statistics show that our personal choices, at scale, actually contribute to much larger results.

Many of the behavioral changes we made during the pandemic were far from new ideas. We've all been told to drive less, take fewer airplane journeys, and even in some cases to work remotely. These sustainable suggestions were easily avoided or postponed—but when suddenly forced upon us, they worked.

Change in global daily fossil
Change in global daily fossil emissions by sector. Source: Global Carbon Project, CC BY

Let's not go back to the way it was

The more pessimistic among us—i.e. climate scientists— have pointed out that emissions have rebounded as we return to normality. However, leaving the pandemic in a blaze of glory and pollution isn't our only option. With pandemic-related "temporary behavioral changes" giving the world a preview of what a lower-emissions lifestyle looks like, millions of us are eager to embrace sustainable substitutions long-term.

For example, an explosion in the number of employees working from home has decreased carbon emissions, and it looks like remote work is here to stay. Additionally, governments across the world are determined to "build back better" via a green recovery plan that contributes to the progress made during the pandemic. In other words, our behavior changes are beginning to shape policy, rather than policy shaping our behavior.

At my own firm, Amasia, we have gone 100 percent remote and will never return to the old model. We have two small offices, in the Bay Area and in Singapore, and team members are welcome to use them for a break or even for extended "deep work." But it is neither an obligation nor even an implicitly desirable habit. And so our eight employees (as of September 2021) are spread across five countries and three continents.

Obviously, the third example is the one that is most pertinent to the whole focus of this book—and as I said above, it is only recently that technology has been developed and implemented, at scale, that can enable these changes.

Our old friend: mimetic desire

We don't need a theoretical model to understand how and why these three changes have occurred, but since I've talked about mimetic desire before, I want to revisit its importance here. You'll remember that though we all like to think of ourselves as unique individuals capable of curating our own tastes, Girard believed that many of our personal choices are actually imitations based on other people's decisions.

A key aspect of Girard's theory was that we modify our own behaviors to match those we like, respect, or idolize (these people are our behavioral "models" or "external mediators," according to Girard). Imitation, he thought, is contagious—why else would people shell out hundreds of dollars for the newest iPhone every year other than the fact that everyone else seems to be doing it? Do most people really need that LIDAR camera?

Phones being thrown away. Source:
Phones being thrown away. Source: Fairphone, CC BY-NC-SA

Girard, I should tell you, had a pretty grim view of where mimetic desire leads for humanity. The three examples above, though, all involve mimetic desire and highly salutary effects. We have to model these behaviors in our personal and professional lives—and rely on the notion that if enough of us model these behaviors, change at scale will come.

The journalist Ezra Klein recently illustrated this point well with the example of his own veganism. “I don’t think my personal decision to not eat meat is that important,” he said, “On the scale of the global animal trade, it’s meaningless. But I caught my veganism from my wife. Other people have caught veganism or vegetarianism from me. And it’s in that way that individual attitudes ladder up to social attitudes, and then to social and political change.”

If we are each “a node for social, political, and moral contagion,” then our human tendencies towards mimetic desire can be used to produce positive behavioral change.

But who is supposed to change their behavior? All of us? Some of us?

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