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Watts: Importance of Public Policy

Education may be essential to growing healthy minds and satisfying lives, but when it comes to changing behavior it falls far short.

A recent study examining the behavior of conservation leaders illustrates this well. The study compared the actions of those working directly in environmental conservation with other white collar workers. The study looked at the lifestyle choices that impact our environmental footprint, such as commuting to work, eating meat, drinking bottled water and traveling by air.

It turns out that the conservation leaders who are most aware of the impacts of their choices, make choices that are only slightly better than the other groups. They drove alone to work, ate meat, used bottled water and recycled at similar or slightly lower rates.

The study underscores what researchers have known for a long time, changing behavior takes public policy – defined as what governments choose to do or not do to address pressing social problems.

Take tobacco use: for years we “educated” consumers with advertising on cigarette packs, with signs in stores and public health classes. None of it had any success.

Then we turned to public policy. We sharply increased the price of tobacco, banned smoking from the work place and restaurants, and made it harder for kids to buy cigarettes. We also made a coordinated effort to support smokers who tried to quit. As a result tobacco smoking rates have dropped in half. This an enormous public health success.

Looking at commuting, the study also underscores the importance of public policy in reducing the impact of our transportation footprint.

Here’s an example from a small company in a suburban town of Chittenden County. Employees can earn up to $6000 in bonuses for reducing their overall energy impacts. The benefits apply to their transportation AND household energy use. To win the bonus, many of the employees now bike, walk or take the bus to work. Ridesharing is common and the bus is basically free.

In four years, individuals have cut their energy consumption by more than one-quarter, using far less on average than the rest of us. And, it turns out all that biking and walking has been good for both the employees’ quality of life AND the companies’ bottom line.

Real change starts with public policy. Education is not enough.

Richard Watts teaches communications and public policy in the College of Arts & Sciences at the University of Vermont and directs the Center for Research on Vermont. He is also the co-founder of a blog on sustainable transportation.
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