Connecting the Dots: Do as I do, not what I say

John Bos



Published: 01-19-2024 1:22 PM

Modified: 01-19-2024 7:00 PM

There’s a quote on my crowded bulletin board full of prompts and reminders about life questions. One of the quotes is by Richard Bach, born the same year I was, in 1936. “Here,” he wrote over many years ago, “is the test to find whether your mission on earth is finished. If you’re alive, it isn’t.”

Given that I have written regularly about our climate crisis for the past dozen years, many of my bulletin board quotes refer to the planet we live on. Here’s one by the Indigenous Chief Seattle (after which the city of Seattle is named).

“This we know,” he said: “The earth does not belong to us, we belong to the earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. We did not weave the web of life; we are merely strands in it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.” He said this sometime before dying in 1866.

If I had begun today’s column packed with specific data and measurements that underscores humankind’s culpability for causing our own destruction, you probably would not have read this far into the measly 750 words I have in which to try to get your attention.

So, the big question is how to motivate or persuade ourselves, friends and neighbors to participate in mitigating our climate crisis?

To that end, I read an interesting article recently that noted the most powerful thing that gets people and politicians to support cycling is by seeing other people ride their bikes, according to Michael Brownstein, an associate professor of philosophy at the City University of New York. “It’s a shift of perspective to see yourself as a member of the community, as an entrepreneur of norms,” Brownstein said.

Scientists have observed again and again that what we do and don’t do is profoundly influenced by how others act.

Researchers in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences examined data from 430 individual studies to see what factors influenced people’s environment-related behaviors, from recycling to switching modes of transportation.

Providing data or facts, as I referenced above, ranked last, persuading an average of 3.5% of people to change their behavior compared to a control group. Setting personal goals and appeals to act more sustainably fared better but were still middling performers. Financial incentives such as subsidies or savings performed relatively well, persuading about 12%.

Leading the pack were what scientists called “social comparisons”: people’s ability to observe the behavior of others and compare it with their own.

This persuaded more than 14% of people to change their behavior in experiments from around the world. Those comparisons could be as passive as observing a neighbor’s solar panels or receiving notices about household energy use.

We do know the climate-related actions of trusted friends, relatives and neighbors can have a profound effect on the people around them.

Solar panels are a classic example. In a 2021 paper published in Nature, researchers found the most important factor that determined whether someone installed panels on their roof wasn’t subsidies, geography or policy. It was whether their neighbor had them. A single solar rooftop project increases installations by nearly 50% within a half-mile radius, a second study found.

Solarize Campaigns [], a grassroots effort in Oregon that has become a blueprint in more than two dozen states, signs up “ambassadors” to show neighbors how to go solar. The ambassadors organize barbecues where people can watch live solar panel installations or share years of low electricity bills to entice more customers.

In Connecticut, one such campaign tripled solar installations while lowering average costs by 20% through bulk discounts and pre-screened contractors, a case study published by Yale University found.

Solar panels, in other words, are contagious.

Various clean technologies share this characteristic, and many of them are cheaper than their fossil fuel counterparts over a lifetime. The primary barrier in getting a lot of people to make the leap is finding enough of those trusted others to show the way.

The mainstream market, people who are far less tolerant of the uncertainty and inconveniences of new products, will remain on the sidelines unless someone changes people’s minds. Persuading them will take a different approach, says Brooke Betts, a former marketing executive who now runs several climate campaigns.

The most persuasive argument might be you.

John Bos’ first column about climate change in the Recorder (“coal-fired power plants”) was published on Jan. 26, 2010. Since then, he has written columns each year about our worsening climate crisis in “Connecting the Dots” every other Saturday in the Recorder. He is also a contributing columnist for Green Energy Times. Comments and questions are always welcome at