Nudge meets Life-Cycle Analysis

Two University of Chicago professors, Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler recently released a wildly-influential book about the power of “Nudge”. The concept of Nudge is that giving people the right information in the right way will encourage people to make better decisions (something they call decision architecture). They site all sorts of studies that show how nudge works in practice: telling each household how much energy their neighbour uses in the monthly bill reduces energy use by 3 %; leaving the lid on the ice-cream freezer closed in a cafeteria decreases ice-cream consumption by half; and putting some sort of visual target in a urinal (you might have seen little fly images on some) cuts “spillage” by 35 per cent.

Simply revealing information in a useful way, the authors argue, can go a long way in ensuring that people make better decisions in the future. This seems to me to be particularly fitting for climate change. Any response requires radical changes in decision-making, and information is the critical missing link in making good decisions.

Enter Life-Cycle Analysis. This highly-technical activity gets right to the heart of sustainability and reveals the information that matters. It has shown, for example, that drying a ‘low-carbon’ and organic t-shirt made in your home country will instantly become less carbon-friendly than even the worst alternative once its tumble dried just once; that bringing your own cup to Starbucks, if they clean it with steam (like the often do) can more-than-offset the environmental damage of the cup that you just saved; and that the average city-dweller is more carbon neutral than its rural counterpart only until the holiday travel emissions are taken into account.

The more of these types of studies are undertaken, and the more people that learn about the results, the better consumers and decision-makers we will be. I think that the book is good, but the book + life-cycle analysis is great. Cass Sunstein is now the Chief Information and Regulation Officer in the Obama administration. I hope he takes this pair seriously.