The moral imperative

A recent article by Daniel Gilbert in Nature, titled Buried by bad decisions, made me rethink approaches to encouraging telework. Gilbert’s point is that humans often make bad decisions; decisions that seem sensible but aren’t because “they tend to focus on what we are getting and forget about what we are foregoing”. Gilbert continues:

For example, people are more likely to buy an item when they are asked to choose between buying or not buying it than when they are asked to choose between buying the item and keeping their money “for other purchases”. Although “not buying” and “keeping one’s money” are the same thing. . . .We will change our lives to save a child but not our light bulbs to save them all.

This description would be amusing if it were not for the fact that humanity is rushing headlong toward serious trouble because of such decision processes. We rail at our politicians and urge them to release stored oil in order to keep gasoline prices down and force OPEC to increase their oil production. Why? So we can buy SUVs that are more affordable to run. Never mind that such actions merely accelerate the rate of global warming. The Japanese have a nuclear disaster resulting from a combination of bad design, poor maintenance and a major earthquake and the Germans act to shut down all their nuclear power plants and stop design of new ones. The rationale is that this will force Germany to become a world leader in alternative energy. Meanwhile, Germans will need to turn to natural gas as the energy source of the month. Natural gas is so popular in the United States that companies are falling all over themselves to produce more of it by fracking. Never mind the real possibility of polluting drinking water for millions of people.

So let’s all pour more carbon into the atmosphere come what may. The hot future will be someone else’s problem. Besides, we need all those fossil fuel sources so we can move around in our SUVs for important things like driving to and from work. Telework may provide instant reduction in fossil fuel use, without massive government subsidies like the ones the oil industry gets, but it may also require organizational culture change. Now that’s really scary! Even if if does cut SUV operational costs.

<update>The Strasbourg Shuffle.  An article in the 29 June 2011 New York Times, titled A Parliament on the move grows costly, points out that each and every month a crew of workers transports the office contents of 736 European Parliament members from their Brussels headquarters to Strasbourg (200 miles away) for their monthly meeting. When the meeting is over, the 2,500 boxes containing all the office contents are trundled back to Brussels again. The annual cost of this to-ing and fro-ing is estimated at $285 million, 19,000 tons of carbon dioxide and 300 unnecessary jobs. </update>

Gilbert suggests that the way to approach these dilemmas is to phrase them in moral terms. He notes:

Texas highways were awash in litter until 1986, when the state adopted a slogan —”Don’t mess with Texas”— that made littering an insult to the honor of every proud Texan, at which point littering decreased by 72%.

We need a similar slogan to accelerate the adoption of telework. Something pithy and to the point, like “Teleworkers do it at home”. No, that doesn’t necessarily motivate the key resistance group: middle managers. Try: “Telework power: it’s carbon free!” Of course, that’s not strictly true if your local electricity comes from coal- or gas-fired power plants. How about: “Telework power: for a minimal carbon  diet”? Or, to put a moral spin on it: “It’s a sin to drive to work when you could telecommute!”

What’s your suggestion?

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