Priming as policy: forest schools and nuclear power

It takes five years to educate a child from the age of five to ten.  It takes between ten and twenty years to build a nuclear power station in a democracy.  We should consider carefully the implications of this in climate policy.

In his biography of Edmund Burke, Conservative politician Jesse Norman writes of how the psychological effects of priming and framing shape our views of the world and our behaviour.  He writes: “People who grow up surrounded by the images, language and culture of money – as they do overwhelmingly in highly developed economies around the world – may have their behaviour and attitudes unconsciously shaped by these primes, and that if so the effect is to make them more greedy, more selfish and more individualistic, and more accepting of social and economic inequality.”

This phenomenon of priming during our formative years is critical for climate policy, and points to a low-cost alternative to current approaches.

Almost all climate policy today is about the supply side: it tries to make bad things (fossil fuels) more expensive and good things (low carbon technologies) cheaper.  Hardly any serious policy is about the demand side: how to make us want bad things less and good things more.

The reason for this is that economists and politicians are scared of trespassing on our “preferences”.  That is, they say that they don’t like to tell us what we should want and not want.  But they do permit themselves to make us pay more or less for things that they think we should want or not want.  There is a subtle, perhaps imaginary, difference between what is politically acceptable and what is not.

Let’s consider this from a purely economic point of view and not a political one.  After all the economists should be ignoring politics and just looking at the economics of different policy measures – it is up to politicians to decide what they can sell.

Economics profess to seek policy measures which achieve their goals at least cost.  This is why, for example, they like to create emission trading schemes which induce market-like behaviour: like water seeking the easiest route to the ocean, or electricity the easiest way around a circuit, human economic agents rush around to find the lowest cost way cut emissions.

But those systems don’t necessarily find the lowest cost route to cutting emissions. They only find the lowest cost route to cutting emissions which is consistent with political sensitivities.

What if we look at the demand side?

Imagine that we had an inspired program of priming of young children to care for the natural world.  Through a national network of forest schools – a dense thicket of schools – , children would imbibe experiences of the natural world for several years; they would learn about our connections to nature – the science, the chemistry, the biology, the ecology; the mathematics of networks and evolution and dispersion.  This would be as rigorous as any science learnt in the classroom.  They would sleep in forests or on mountain tops, see breathtaking sunsets and dawns; swim in chill pools and watch minnows; run full pelt against wild winds and watch red kites soaring; they would become transfixed with awe of nature.  They would learn about other species and our duties towards them; they would learn to care for people and species far away in space and time.

This alternative priming would mean that children grown into more confident adults, less desperate for symbols of status; they would be less anxious, less needy for the numbing of consumerism.  They would be hardier and so not need to be coddled with so much heating and hot water.  They would be more at one with the world and so not need jet-setting ambition to feel good.

Demand for energy would fall, as would CO2 emissions.

Therefore before concluding that supply-side interventions are the most economically effective, economists should also consider the economics of demand-side interventions.  They should look at the cost of this priming exercise and then consider its effect on emissions.  For all they know the marginal abatement cost of priming is lower than that of supply-side interventions.  One thing is certain: they don’t know that marginal abatement cost yet.  And until they know it, they cannot claim that tackling the demand side would be a more expensive approach than – say – building low-carbon infrastructure.  One thing is for certain – it takes less time to prime a child than to construct a nuclear power plant.

One day I want to see the celebrated (but flawed) marginal abatement cost curve bristling with demand-side approaches: priming, education, advocacy, leadership, great example by inspiring people…

This is a hypothesis.  It would be great if we could test it.

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