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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Social Sciences Necessary to Spur Environmental Action

Air Date: Week of

It’s often assumed that advances in science and technology are key to helping the environment. But a new study by Bob Fri, a visiting scholar at Resources for the Future, suggests that social sciences are just as important. Fri tells host Bruce Gellerman that social sciences are critical to getting people to change habits and adopt new technology.


GELLERMAN: Typically, we turn to science and technology to help solve our tough environmental problems. But turning these solutions into things we actually use, well, that takes something more. The American Academy of Arts and Sciences has just released a report that explores what else is needed to make a renewable energy future possible and practical.

Bob Fri is director of the project and a visiting scholar at Resources for the Future. I met him at a workshop at the Academy to learn what that missing ingredient is.

FRI: There's a big difference between a really cool idea and one that a lot of people use. Getting the technology and science right is the next to last step in the process. The last step is to get the technology to diffuse through the economy at a large enough scale that it makes a difference. And that raises a bunch of questions that are more in the province of social sciences than they are in physical and engineering sciences.

GELLERMAN: So, we’re talking about social science - we’re talking about anthropology, sociology…

FRI: Behavioral economics, psychology - the whole lot. The whole range of them, yeah.

GELLERMAN: How do we apply what they do to what we need in terms of getting people to use alternative energy resources?

FRI: Just to give you an example: one of the big problems is what’s called the ‘energy efficiency paradox.’ There are all these studies that show that any sensible, rational person would go out and buy all kinds of energy efficiency devices because they would save you money, yet it doesn’t happen. And the reason that it doesn’t happen is that there are other values at play and other reasons for individual and household behavior. It’s just too much trouble to build in a new heating and air conditioning system in your house even though the economics look great.

GELLERMAN: You know, it’s interesting you say this because I was just researching getting solar photovoltaics put on the roof of my house. So I had a couple of analyses done and it makes incredible economic sense for me to do it. Over 20 years I can save 25, maybe $27,000 dollars. Understanding the analysis and the process is really hard, and I know this stuff.

FRI: That’s right, and I’ve had the same experience with other folks - other friends of mine - that are equally sophisticated that have to fight their way through the system - even though they understand it - to make it happen. And you’re just not going to get adoption that way. Another example is, as you know, there’s this big debate about fracking - fracturing technology and the shale gas, right?

And, that’s… and there are a lot of scientific questions, but a key question is that this technology means that you move in an industrial process that is going to stay in a location forever. It’s not just drill a well and go away. You’ve gotta keep dong it. So it’s this on-going industrial process, which creates a cultural problem - culture in conflict with the in- place culture. So you actually need people like anthropologists to understand. So the social sciences just, I think, have a lot to contribute.

GELLERMAN: But when you speak to engineer-types, do they say ‘ah, that social science stuff, that’s mushy-gushy,’ and when you speak to the social science types do they say ‘oh, that’s hard-nosed, that’s formulaic, that’s number crunching?'

FRI: Yes, and yes - are the short answers to your question! And so how do you deal with that? Well, you’ve gotta prove to the engineer types that if you apply social science to the technologies that they’re interested in seeing deployed and they will be more successful as a result, over time you’ll overcome that opposition. And, the case of the social scientists, if you can say ‘look, look in the energy field. I can formulate a more interesting research question than the one you are working on today,’ then you will influence them. But it takes a lot of work to prove yourself in both communities, and so it will take time.

GELLERMAN: Yeah, you’ve gotta bridge cultural gaps.

FRI: Absolutely. Yes.

GELLERMAN: You know, in terms of bridging the gap, sometimes you build it and then they do come. I’m thinking of 'Cash for Clunkers.' Tremendous program - I mean, people couldn’t trade in their old cars fast enough. An, then you have some technologies like geothermal and wind power as highly controversial, and people are fighting tooth and nail against it.

FRI: That’s right - and for it. And in the case of ‘Cash for Clunkers’ - that one was pretty easy to understand. And I suspect the auto dealers who were administering that program, early on, figured out that they had to make it easy for the customer. But you know, when a bunch of windmills show up in your backyard, and if you haven’t been talked to about it in advance, you’re likely to have a much more adverse reaction, and in part, because you feel helpless and you can’t do anything about it.

GELLERMAN: Can social sciences then smooth the process between either acceptance or rejection? I mean, make it less painful, less confrontational?

FRI: Yeah, it can. I think in the case of siting new energy facilities, there actually are some social scientists who are very good - if you start early enough in the process - they're very good at getting the stakeholders together and, if not getting a total consensus from everybody, at least deescalating the conflict to the point where a reasonable solution can be put in place.

GELLERMAN: Well, a lot at stake here though.

FRI: Ultimately yeah. Quite a lot. It’s one thing to invest a lot of money in doing the basic research and coming up with these cool, new technologies, but unless they diffuse through the economy at a scale that makes a difference, it doesn’t make a difference.

GELLERMAN: Mr. Fri, thank you very much. I really appreciate you taking the time for me.

FRI: Thank you for having me. It's been a pleasure.



Resources for the future

A copy of the AAAS report


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