Nudging for water conservation

The drought in California that lasted from 2012 until it was officially lifted by Governor Jerry Brown earlier this year stimulated much popular concern and led to some major changes in policy.  The legislature passed a law requiring mandatory groundwater management, and various local municipalities instituted policies mandating water conservation.  The result was significant reductions in water use.

Now that the drought has ended, however, we are already seeing backsliding: people are starting to use more water as the urgency of the moment has passed and people slip back into complacency.

A recent KPCC news story “With drought a fading memory, water use rises” (October 20, 2017) describes the situation in some inland communities in southern California, where, after a few years of significant water conservation, water use is back on the rise again.  In Jurupa Valley and Eastvale, water use is back up and higher than it has been in the past three years.  Now, according to the story, the lawns in front of some homes resemble the Emerald City of Oz.

So are the recent increases in water use an example of history repeating itself?  Are we doomed to re-live the same scenario over and over again, like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day?

Crisis has always been a big motivator.  When a crisis occurs, everybody runs around like chickens with their heads cut off, exhorting the heavens and urging action.  It calls to mind the classic movie The Russians are coming, the Russians are coming, where rumors of a Russian invasion had a small New England town in a tizzy, with nobody listening to poor old Jonathan Winters pleading: We’ve GOT to get organized!  But then the crisis passes and time and time again, we return to business as usual.

But let us take a closer look at the latest lapse into complacency.  While some gains in water reduction have been lost, others seem to be holding.  On the one hand, you have homeowners, weary of having brown front lawns that resemble moonscapes, opening up the spigots again, kind of like dieters binge-eating after starving themselves to lose ten pounds.

In other cases, however, we see that lawns have been ripped out and water use dramatically slashed, with no sign of backsliding.  Or the branch of a new library that has been remodeled and fitted out with water-conserving features, enabling them to save and re-use 60,000 gallons of water a year.

What is the lesson here?  It seems to be that some kinds of backsliding are more likely than others.  It is easy to understand, on a human level, a homeowner’s psychological need to see his lawn green again.  However, if you rip out your lawn and replace it with decorative gravel, cacti, and ornamental stone, you don’t have to walk by that horrible brown moonscape every day.  You start to appreciate the esthetic look of cacti next to ornamental stone.  You have moved to a different place, psychologically speaking.  That is what makes this latter reduction in water use more likely to be permanent.

Similarly, a re-modeled library building that automatically recycles water requires little if any investment of time or attention to the task of conserving water.  After the initial investment is made, conservation just happens.

This year, the Nobel Prize in economics was awarded to Richard Thaler for his work in behavioral economics.  A few years ago, Thaler co-authored a book entitled Nudge, which was all about human beings doing seemingly irrational things, like not saving enough for retirement.  The problem, said Thaler, was that people go on autopilot and tend to stay there.  They put off starting a retirement account, go about their business, life happens, and before you know it, several years have passed and they still haven’t started one.  And then soon enough, they are facing the scary prospect of retirement with insufficient savings and kicking themselves that they didn’t start saving earlier.

The solution, said Thaler, is to change the default setting on the autopilot.  Rather than the default being “Don’t save” in the above example, set the default at “Automatically save”.  For example, when you start a new job, make sure: first, that it indeed has a retirement account and second, that the monthly contributions are set at a level that won’t leave you living in poverty in the end.  Then, just forget about it.

Here is part of what I think is going on with the recent, but partial, backsliding on water conservation since the drought officially ended.  Some of the defaults have been reset, others have not.  When you rip out your lawn, you have set the default at: “Don’t water”.  If you have kept your lawn, your default has not changed, your autopilot kicks in, and before you know it, the lawn sprinklers are on again.

I think there are some important lessons here for water policy.  If we are serious about water conservation, we should be thinking, as much as possible, about policies that reset peoples’ default settings.

We should focus on policies that are more likely to induce permanent changes, keeping in mind peoples’ tendencies to go on autopilot.  Alternate-day lawn watering, water police going around handing out tickets for wasting water, and big splashy signs proclaiming that “Water conservation is cool” are unlikely to make a permanent difference.  After the crisis has passed and we have eased up the restrictions or ended the water conservation campaign, people are likely to just go right back to what they were doing.

But subsidies to rip out lawns, to install recycling features in libraries and so forth may well lead to permanent changes in water use.  When we set water policies, we need to think about human nature and in particular, our all-too-human tendency to just keep on doing what we are accustomed to doing.  Otherwise, we are doomed to our own real-world version of Groundhog Day.

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Mark Kanazawa

I am Wadsworth A. Williams Professor of Economics at Carleton College, Northfield, MN