The Cube: welcome to your eco-prison cell

Apparently our unwillingness to live in cramped, low-energy homes reveals our psychological flaws.

Rob Lyons
Columnist

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Topics Science & Tech

I think estate agents would refer to it as ‘compact and bijou’. It’s The Cube, the eco-home that’s showing just what sustainable living is all about. It should have been called The Cell.

The tiny house, which was on show at April’s Edinburgh Science Festival and is the brainchild of Dr Mike Page of the University of Hertfordshire, has an internal footprint of just three metres by three metres, yet has all the modern conveniences. There’s a tiny lounge with a flat-panel TV. If you want to dine with a friend, you need to swap half the sofa round with the sliding table. On the next level – reachable by a staircase so tiny that there’s only enough room for one foot at a time – you’ll find the composting toilet, the walk-in shower and the kitchen. (Is that even legal?) From there, you can clamber into the narrow bed, which could only accommodate two people if they both happen to be skinny vegans who don’t suffer from claustrophobia.

Everything is extremely well-insulated, including triple-glazed windows. Heat is provided by a heat-pump attached to the outside wall while electricity is generated through solar panels on the roof. Of course, they won’t work during the night, but you’ll have made so much money flogging electricity to the grid during the day – thanks to the insane prices at which electricity companies are obliged to buy micro-generated power – that you could actually earn £1000 per year.

All this could be yours for £50,000, assuming you’ve got some land to stick it on and you’re prepared to live in such cramped conditions. Considering you could buy a far larger luxury caravan with better facilities for less money (though not so well insulated), you may wonder why you would bother. But Page isn’t really interested in building eco-homes; in fact, he’s a psychologist. What he’s really interested in is why there is no demand for such eco-living, given that we now have lots of technology available to reduce our ‘impact’ – our ‘ecological footprint’.

It’s this conundrum that Page takes up in a contribution he co-wrote with a colleague, Nadine Page, for a British Psychological Society publication, The Psychology of Sustainability in the Workplace. ‘Climate change is a psychological problem’, they baldly assert. For example, the authors note how when they talk to businesses they often encounter a reluctance to act on advice that could cut greenhouse-gas emissions and costs, complaining that ‘we frequently find senior managers reluctant to proceed… the problem is not technological nor financial: it is psychological’.

Page and Page note how people tend to stick to old habits, even when they don’t represent the best course of action, and struggle to focus on more than one or two things at a time, leaving them ‘blind’ to other opportunities. Other unhelpful but common psychological traits include an unwillingness to cut our losses – even when changing could save us money (the ‘sunk cost’ fallacy) – and negative thinking when under pressure.

The authors illustrate these tendencies through the example of hotel lighting. Let’s imagine a hotel where much of the lighting is provided by 50-watt halogen bulbs. The manager, thinking himself clever, replaces them all at a slightly increased cost per bulb with 35-watt lower-energy bulbs that do much the same job. Good, right? It’s slightly more expenditure up front, but in the long run it means lower bills and fewer emissions.

But then Page and Page illustrate the turmoil that comes when it is suggested that these new bulbs should be replaced after just a short period in use with new, seven-watt LED bulbs. The bulbs are expensive, but last a long time and use much less power. Even though the manager has only just installed the 35-watt bulbs, the hotel would save money fairly quickly by replacing them all with the LED bulbs. In such situations, Page and Page report, the person making the business decision will refuse to make the switch, even when it seems to make both business and environmental sense.

The bulbs example appears to be pretty clear-cut; it’s irrational, right? But the authors seem unwilling to consider the possibility of alternative explanations. For example, the manager may ultimately be concerned that, having won some brownie points for making a good decision on the first light-bulb replacement, all that work would be undone by (apparently) changing his mind and demanding expenditure on new bulbs. Even if changing bulbs again makes economic sense, it might make him look indecisive and fickle to his bosses. Or he might just be quietly sceptical about whether these new-fangled bulbs will really save him as much money as is claimed.

This highlights a problem with much of behavioural economics. Scenarios are created in which there is a ‘right’ answer, like choosing the LED light bulbs. Then, when people make a different choice, the researchers assume that people must be making that choice according to hard-wired, irrational habits. As one critic of behavioural economics, Robin Neill, points out, this is really a matter of good or bad judgement, not irrational behaviour. In the confines of the different factors any individual takes into account when making a decision, they might well be acting in an entirely rational manner, even if that decision is not the one we, as outside observers, might make.

In turn, that says a lot about why behavioural economics is so fashionable. Academics, consultants, campaigners and politicians decide upon what is the ‘rational’ course of action – reducing our carbon footprints, giving up smoking, hitting the gym. Then, when we don’t fall into line, these outside observers conclude that we must be psychologically manipulated – ‘nudged’ – to counteract our irrational tendencies. This fits neatly with our contemporary culture which sees more and more problems through the prism of psychology and therapy. Never mind that we might be sceptical about climate panics, enjoy cigarettes or hate exercise, and make rational trade-offs in terms of accepting risk; the experts know best. Never mind our rights or our autonomy.

Maybe it’s time to turn the tables. The inability to understand another person’s actions and decisions – as exhibited by behavioural experts and their cheerleaders – sounds like a psychological problem to me. The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) has a label for someone who exhibits ‘a pervasive pattern of disregard for, and violation of, the rights of others’: anti-social personality disorder. That’s ‘being a sociopath’ to you and me. Surely these fans of behaviour modification need treatment and respect? They’re clearly wrong in the head, poor things.

Meanwhile, back at The Cube, I have one of those wacky alternative explanations for why no one would want to live in Dr Page’s eco-home: it’s shit.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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