Nudge theory is touted as a way to change all of us to be more green.
When organisations want us to behave in new ways they can use nudges. Examples abound: the sexy woman on the loan ad, the inked-in fly on the urinal, changing the social norm, product placement in supermarkets, and now the UN is giving us ‘green nudges’.
The thinking is change through promoting better choices. And it can help us recycle a little more, waste less, turn off more, and share resources.
The problem is the system that the nudges are tweaking. You may save a little here and a little there, but the problem is the fact that even one disposable, plastic-coated coffee cup is the problem to be solved, not recycling 50% instead of 40%.
Recycling the coffee cup is neither here nor there, it doesn’t matter at all, it is a consumerist sop to reduce our guilt and keep us drinking. It reinforces bad behaviour, and allows the coffee company social licence to continue selling harmful products for profit.
So why decide to nudge? Because it is acceptable, and the only sad, slow level at which we can challenge that system. And because corporations know it not only won’t address the underlying issues, but that it gives them permission to continue.
Getting rid of the coffee shop itself, even the consumer-driven high street it serves (being full of caffeine keeps you out and shopping for longer) is just too big a problem to solve, so we tinker with the broken system.
Real change feels uncomfortable and it feels urgent. Nudging feels neither uncomfortable or urgent.
What does real change look like, feel like, and how do we make it happen. It has to be made to happen, after all modern marketing and consumerism isn’t our natural state, it was planned out after WW2 by people like Edward Bernays. Like people were taught to demand and expect material things, have people demand change. We cannot creep towards it. Then we have progress.
As a cyclist I pass an increasing number of cars, and cars which are bigger SUVs. Marketing tells SUV owners that they will be safer, more in control, and their children are safer.
The reality is that SUVs more dangerous for drivers, and far more dangerous if you’re a pedestrian hit by one. Marketing is the only reason, playing on our societal fears, that SUVs are selling more than ever.
I want to say to SUV owners as they whizz past me on my bicycle, ” do you not know that every mile you drive you are putting a nail in the coffin of every child you know?” Diesel, petrol, hybrid, electric it doesn’t matter, the resources put into selling as many people as possible one of these vehicles pollutes and fills our cities and creates so much pollution and waste that a climate crisis is assured: it will cause worse floods, fires and hurricanes. It will cause heat death as the science is showing.
Nudging people off SUVs and into smaller cars is not only inadequate it is dangerous and life-threatening to us all.
How do we make SUV drivers take this on board to such an extent than SUVs become socially unacceptable? That people getting out of SUVs are pelted with rotten eggs and are shouted down. That SUV owners feel so sickened by looking at their SUV in their drive that they take it back to the dealership and angrily dump it there, never to drive it again?
That’s a shove not a nudge.
This is what we need to do. Use the power of marketing and science to change that mindset. Have people demand change not be led in microscopically small steps to it.
Do it for SUVs, do it for single use plastic I want people coming out of M&S with their plastic wrapped dinners poked with umbrellas; do it for polyester clothes, I want people chased down the street being berated for harming our children’s futures; do it for fish, I want to see people harangued for emptying our oceans of life; do it for mobile phones, I want to see people chastised for using something that causes untold suffering in global south countries so we can use Tik-Tok; do it for everything we need to challenge. Make them social unacceptable and have people equate ending their use to saving the lives of every child alive today. Shove not nudge.