Peer Pressure? Too Little and Way Too Late for the Climate Emergency

Photograph by Jeffrey St. Clair

In a Washington Post opinion piece last month, Robert Frank sought to instruct us in how peer pressure can “help stop climate change.” He wasn’t very convincing on that point; he did help, however, to inadvertently make the case that collective efforts, ones much more sweeping than individual role-modeling, are necessary to staving off climate catastrophe.

Franks argued that “social contagion” can trigger a proliferation of climate-friendly actions, writing, “It’s when we consider the effects of our behavior on our peers, and vice versa, that the consequences of individual decisions to reduce carbon use start to grow in importance.” His marquee examples of peer pressure at work were the purchase of hybrid cars and the installation of residential solar energy equipment.

Regarding vehicular example-setting, Franks cited research that measured the power of social contagion by comparing brisk sales of the Toyota Prius since the early 2000s with anemic sales of the Honda Civic hybrid. The popularity of the “distinctively shaped Prius,” he wrote, could be attributed to the power that “environmental status signaling” wields over other potential car buyers.

The Civic hybrid never sold well (and was discontinued in 2015) because—writes Frank, citing research—it has “similar environmental advantages but looks exactly like the standard Civic, except for a subtle badge. The Civic sends a very weak ‘signal’ to onlookers.”

“Status signaling” may have been good for Prius sales, but its effect on the nation’s greenhouse emissions was undetectable. Annual Prius sales peaked in 2013, according to Frank, at 500,000 cars. An impressive number, but it means that the new crop of hybrids came in at just 0.2 percent of the total U.S. car/SUV/pickup fleet that year. Meanwhile, petroleum use in the United States escalated at a rate of 1.3 percent per year from 2012 to 2018, thanks largely to the soaring popularity of pickup trucks and other large vehicles (more social contagion?), along with increased air travel.

The climate emergency has reached a point at which it’s way too late to depend on lifestyle changes and market signaling. Hair-raising scientific reports coming through the UN Environment Program and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2018-19 made clear that fossil fuel use must be reduced by 5 to 10 percent annually, starting now. Market forces will never produce such rapid rates of decline, whether or not peer pressure, carbon taxes, or other nudges are applied.

Consider Franks’ other peer-pressure poster child, rooftop solar. It is an excellent home feature to install if you can afford it. But if you do go solar, don’t expect to kick off a climatic revolution. According to Franks himself, “In the average-size Zip code . . . each new installation raised the daily probability of another installation by 0.78 percentage points.”

Such gentle prodding of the market cannot create a solar energy boom, let alone drive fossil fuel use down at the necessarily rapid rate. In fact, history and research show that with economic growth, new energy sources simply add to existing energy supplies; they don’t displace them.

Research by Richard York and Shannon Elizabeth Bell shows, in their words, that “simply promoting renewables will not lead to a full transition. What is necessary is an active suppression of fossil fuels. Simply expanding renewables is unlikely to be effective, since, all else equal, adding more energy to the energy supply suppresses prices and, therefore, helps to spur consumption.”

To be effective, active suppression will require impervious statutory caps on the total barrels of oil, cubic feet of gas, and tons of coal that can enter the U.S. economy, with those caps lowering quickly year by year until they reach zero on schedule. The buildup of wind and solar farms will not be able to proceed fast enough to compensate fully for the necessary withdrawal of fossil energy from the economy; furthermore, there will be permanent technical and ecological limits on the total quantity of renewable energy that can be generated. In short, this society must learn to run on much less energy.

With a smaller energy supply, communities across the country will have strong incentives to mobilize for energy conservation, public transportation, and local renewable energy generation. The necessary transformation of production and consumption must happen through collective action, not status signaling.

America needs to decrease its consumption of energy and other resources, and that is not going to happen one household or one purchase at a time. Driving greenhouse emissions down to zero soon enough to prevent runaway heating of the Earth will require a collective decision, arrived at through democratic processes, to end all fossil-fuel extraction and burning on a crash schedule.

Adapting this economy and society to the rapid elimination of oil, gas, and coal will require a nationwide focus on production that meets everyone’s need for basic goods and services, along with a halt to wasteful or superfluous production. The goal must be sufficiency for all and excess for none.

Robert Frank’s Post piece and his recent book Under the Influence have spurred widespread giddiness over the peer-pressure panacea. Example-setting can indeed be effective—not against greenhouse warming but rather in helping generate creative ideas for adapting, collectively and justly, to universal limits on energy and materials. Such limits must be established right away if we are to eradicate greenhouse emissions before it’s too late.

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Stan Cox is the author of The Green New Deal and Beyond : Ending the Climate Emergency While We Still Can (City Lights, May, 2020) and one of the editors of Green Social Thought, where this piece first ran.

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