Coining a new phrase is a great way to change an old attitude, was my initial thought when I first read about “YIMFY” or “yes in my front yard”, a phrase introduced in a report from the International Energy Agency. It is a play on the well-known negative “not in my back yard”, but in reverse and refers to the mobilizing attitude seen in the increasing number of municipalities who are going “green.”
Not only can these municipalities have a strong impact on global greenhouse emissions, they might also hold the key to how real environmentally friendly actions can become day-to-day habits for myriads of us. But a phrase isn’t going to change anything if the actions associated with it don’t overcome the psychological barriers that have prevented many of the environmentally friendly policies from becoming mainstream in the first place.
As I see it, there are two issues that get in the way of all of us being more “green”. First, our-day-to-day lives involve groups that are an important part of who we are (such as where we live, our social circle, and where we work), and groups have norms that need to be followed (consciously or sub-consciously) if one is to maintain membership. In essence, unless there is a norm of green behavior in the group, it is unlikely that the “greenness” of the action will figure in the equation when choices are made. In part this is because we have neither the mental capacity nor the time to work through all the consequences of our actions and we only consider those that seem relevant and important. For example, if you live on a street where everyone has a porch light burning, you will too. If on the other hand, the norm is to put that light on a sensor, well, yours will most likely be on one as well. If all your friends take cloth bags to the grocery store to avoid using plastic, you may not remember until you run into one of them and feel embarrassed, but from then on, you will remember and cloth bags will likely become your norm. It’s not that we can’t think for ourselves, but simply that we are social creatures and ensuring membership in our in-groups, especially those that figure in our sense of self or identity, is important to us.
I believe that green communities hold out hope that sweeping state or national policies don’t – they have the capacity to introduce change at the level that matters for the individuals who have to make and live with the changes. Research has shown that we will willingly sacrifice for the sake of our in-group, provided the group membership is meaningful. It’s one thing when someone in a government agency many miles away decides that roofs in your community have to have solar panels and a whole other matter when those same panels become the symbol of energy independence for a community of which you are a proud member. The former is a case of NIMBY (or in this case not on my roof) while the latter a case of YIMFY. The caveat here is that the municipality has to be a relevant group identity – if it is not, then the recommended green actions are unlikely to become important norms.
The second issue is how municipalities or communities choose to communicate the norms that make them green. For example, ordinary hotel guests are more likely to reuse their towels when told that others staying in the same room did so than when they are simply told that it is good for the environment. It is not that these guests don’t care about the environment, but that the norm described to them is not meaningful until it is tied to their identity in some way. Thus, “green” behavior is more likely to occur when it is communicated as being important to a relevant and meaningful identity. Otherwise, it is just one more rule that is likely to be ignored.
Additional information on what works when communicating about environmental issues and solutions, based on decades of research, can be found in a recently released communication guide by the Center for Research on Environmental Decision (CRED) . The guide is available for free here.