Changing Behavior Works
Collective behavior change is possible—and impactful.
In my book, I give three examples, each on different time scales, demonstrating the impact of behavior change. For this post, I’ll focus on the most recent one.
It’s the Covid-19 pandemic. CO2 emissions plummeted by 10 to 17 percent because the pandemic forcibly reduced energy demand. The largest decline in emissions was in ground transport (by 18.6 percent) and aviation (35.8 to 52.4 percent).
These statistics show that our personal choices can drive significant results. And these results come from old ideas: we’ve all been told to drive less, take fewer airplane journeys, and even work remotely. We avoided these sustainable suggestions—which we now know have dramatic impacts on emissions—until we were forced to follow them.
As the pandemic concluded, we have partially maintained these sustainable substitutions. Many employees continue to work at home, and the number is growing, as remote work is here to stay. And many governments are following a green recovery plan that continues the progress made during the pandemic.
The point here is not that we need a global plague to change. The point is that our behavior changes can have a massive impact when done at scale. They can also shape policy, rather than all of us relying on fraught policy agreements to shape our behavior.
This paradigm shift happens when enough of us adopt sustainable behaviors that others begin following. Among other things, this is an example of mimetic desire, where people modify their behaviors to match those they like, respect, or idolize.
If we are each “a node for social, political, and moral contagion,” then our human tendencies toward mimetic desire can drive positive behavioral change.