Category Archives: Environment

What does shaving my legs have to do with saving the planet?

This weekend I went shopping and shaved my legs.

To those of you who don’t know me, you might be thinking to yourself, “That’s not interesting. That sounds like a normal weekend to me.”

But to those of you who do know me, you know that is abnormal behavior for me. Not only do I abhor shopping, but I have not shaved my legs in four years.

Why am I blogging about this? Because I am fascinated by what motivated me to commit these abnormal behaviors: social norms.

In other words, my abnormal behavior is actually normal for most people, and therefore I felt compelled to change in order to fit in.

An affluent city, Munich is crawling with trendy people. Thus, since arriving, I have felt like a frumpy American with my slowly out-dating wardrobe, which has motivated me to acquire the trendy European look.

As for the shaving, sure, both German and American women shave their legs. So the normative pressure to do so is no different here than when I was in the US. But what probably motivated me to “become normal” in Germany is tied to my self-consciousness as “foreign” and my desire to draw as little attention to myself as possible.

So, what does shaving my legs have to do with saving the planet?

My prosaic anecdote was intended to set the stage for what I really want to talk about: social norms and environmental behavior. If we apply social norms to motivating people to adopt planet-friendly habits, they can work pretty much the same way.

In fact, there is a growing body of research to back this up. Perhaps the most well-known scholar to unearth the power of norms in environmental behavior change is psychologist Robert Cialdini. For example, he and his colleagues found social norms to be the strongest push for Californians to use less energy in their homes and for hotel patrons to opt to reuse their towels to save water and energy.

Social norms are not just an American thing. German researchers found that, in a variety of contexts, Germans were most influenced by the people around them in their environmental behavior choices, and a Michigan State researcher suggested peer pressure motivated Chinese farmers to convert cropland back to forests.

If we all were to do a little self reflecting, we might recognize how our own behavior–environmentally related or not–has been influenced by our family, friends, colleagues, neighbors and community members. If social norms continue to prove to be a potent factor in encouraging environmental behavior, the possibilities for creating a mainstream transformation in how humans treat the planet are abundant (I think so, at least).

That said, I do recognize the irony that both shopping and shaving aren’t considered “environmentally friendly” activities…

Further Reading

Shaping Pro-Environment Behaviors

Social Norms & Social Networks

“Social Norms: An Underestimate and Underemployed Lever for Managing Climate Change”

Social norm strategies do work — but there are risks involved”


Filed under Environment

Who actually founded Earth Day?

With another Earth Day behind us, I felt inclined to explore a recently piqued curiosity: the differing claims as to who actually founded this appreciation day for Mama Earth.

This curiosity is partly based in (very) loose connections I have with two of the alleged founders. I received my Masters degree from an institute whose namesake is one of them: the late US Senator Gaylord Nelson. And I used to work for an organization whose keynote speaker for a conference I helped organize is the other: Denis Hayes. Like I said, very loose connections.

I have seen claims splattered about the Internet and on social media that both were the Earth Day founder. Such as here and here.

A quick Google search revealed two more alleged founders. Peace activist John McConnell is one, and the environmental movement is hoping we all can forget the other: girlfriend-murderer Ira Einhorn.

While perhaps there’s no real harm or controversy in this confusion over who wears the “founder” crown, it is kind of an interesting example of how history is muddled or tweaked (perhaps unknowingly) along the way. Word-choice among journalists and activists likely also plays a role in creating this confusion.

As an attempt to help set things straight, here are my suggested titles for these earth-loving gentlemen.

Gaylord Nelson, the Man who had the idea
Nelson hatched the idea to create a national teach-in to raise awareness about environmental problems, which evolved into Earth Day. His proposal swiftly attracted media attention and enthusiastic activists, which helped build momentum for the movement.

Denis Hayes, the Man who made it happen who shepherded the team that collectively made it happen, a.k.a. the first national coordinator*
Since Nelson wanted Earth Day to be a “bottom-up” effort, he hired Hayes to help make his idea a reality. At age 25, Hayes became the original national Earth Day coordinator (geez, I was having a quarter-life crisis at age 25). He later helped spread the Earth Day net to over 180 countries. But Hayes was not the only key orchestrater–see my friend Brian’s brilliant insights in the first comment below to get the more complete story. (Brian is an actual historian and played a crucial role in the creation of the “Gaylord Nelson and Earth Day” website I share below. I thank him for calling me out on my poor original choice for Hayes’ title.)

*This “a.k.a.” title is straight from the horse’s mouth. Check out this post’s comments for Hayes’ first-hand account of the birth of Earth Day.

John McConnell, the Man who founded the other Earth Day
Although McConnell launched his equinox Earth Day a month earlier than Nelson’s (in March 1970) and the city of San Francisco and the UN officially observed it, it seems his version didn’t quite catch on. In fact, it appears the UN later took sides with Nelson, as it now officially observes International Mother Earth Day on April 22. But McConnell did create the Earth Day flag (though I can’t tell who now flies it) and wrote the Earth Day Proclamation. Interestingly, McConnell is an evangelical Christian, and his ambitions were somewhat biblically motivated, which makes me wonder what role, if any, he has played in the religious environmental movement.

Ira Einhorn, the Man who went crazy
Technically, Einhorn was the master of ceremonies for the original Earth Day event in 1970. But after killing his girlfriend for breaking up with him; then hiding from the police in foreign countries for 23 years; until finally being caught, found guilty and thrown in jail for the remainder of his life, his self-proclamations as the true “founder” are likely just crazy-talk.

So, in reality, like many historical events, the creation of Earth Day was more of a team effort.

You can compare Earth Day histories at the following links:

Earth Day Network (Nelson and Hayes’ version)

The Official International Earth Day (McConnell’s version)

Gaylord Nelson and Earth Day (an awesome website created by the Wisconsin Historical Society)

McConnell’s Earth Day flag


Filed under Environment

Insurance in a changing climate

When you are entrenched in conversations about the environment in both your professional and personal life, it is easy to start thinking you’ve heard it all. Until you discover nooks, crannies and even wide-open spaces you’ve yet explored. I had one of those discoveries last week at a colloquium hosted by my employer, in which I learned about the fascinating world of climate change and insurance.

Yes, that’s right, I said insurance is “fascinating.”

The colloquium’s speaker was Peter Hoeppe, the head climate guy at the world’s largest reinsurance company, Munich RE, which is headquartered in Munich. (A reinsurance company is in the business of insuring insurance companies from failing). Based on his presentation, they seem to be leading the way in addressing climate change for the insurance industry (being a company of their size probably also helps them afford a whole department devoted to climate change).

In fact, Hoeppe claimed Munich RE was one of the first alarm-sounders to climate change with a scientific report they published in the 1970s, and they’ve made the issue one of their company’s primary focus topics. A broad sweep of their efforts includes their attempt to make their business operations 100% carbon neutral by 2015, investment in renewable energy, and initiating flagship renewable energy projects–one of them a giant and controversial effort to harness the Sahara desert’s solar and wind energy and transport it all over Europe, the Middle East and northern Africa.

This BBC News broadcast will give you a good, concise introduction to Munich RE’s climate change efforts.

Why would an insurance company care about climate change? It all comes down to the fundamental business of insurance: risk management. Climate change ups the ante on the amount of risk many people face (or will face) on a regular basis, and of course an insurance company would care about a riskier world.

In short, climate change predictions show an increase in the number of severe weather events (storms, tornadoes, droughts, flooding, etc.) in many places around the world. Actually, it seems to already be happening (see graph below).

You see, a warmer atmosphere means more water evaporation, and more water in the atmosphere means a feistier climate. A feistier climate means more natural catastrophe losses for an insurance company to cover, and the more catastrophic losses to cover, the less money an insurance company makes.

After all, their bottom line is still to make a profit–a point Hoeppe even made in his presentation. And a reinsurance company would be especially interested in ensuring insurance companies (terrible wordplay intended) maintain their profits.

To make the situation even trickier (for everyone), numerous other factors exacerbate the risk of loss to climate change-related disasters. Rapid human population growth means there are more people vulnerable to natural catastrophes; an increase in wealth across the world means higher risks of losses (i.e., there is more to lose); and people are increasingly inhabiting risk-prone areas (think Florida), as well as concentrating themselves in cities.

Sorry for all this doom-and-gloom talk, folks. I promise to turn it around. Stay with me.

So, who is going to pay for the losses from these potential floods, storms and droughts? It will depend on where you live and how well-prepared your insurance company is in dealing with climate change.

In some places, especially the risk-magnets, insurance companies are already throwing up their hands and pointing to the property owners. For example, State Farm has has stopped writing new policies for American homeowners in the increasingly disaster-prone states of Florida and Mississippi, according to one report.

Even those who are lucky to be covered may be seeing premium hikes; for some people, this is already a reality. An Environmental Defense report from 2007 (admittedly a little dated now) showed soaring premiums for hurricane-battered coastal states, with rates tripling and quadrupling in some areas. Such hikes could render insurance coverage less or not affordable for many people.

And the world’s most disaster-vulnerable places also happen to be the least developed and least insured.

The world's insured and uninsured. Graphic created by Munich RE.

At least in Europe, some insurers, scientists, and policy people are putting their heads together to figure out what to do about this daunting predicament through collaborations such as the Munich Climate Insurance Initiative (if the name didn’t give it away, this group was convened by Munich RE) and ClimateWise.

The situation in the US, however, is reflective of the general dragging of the feet on dealing with climate change. A survey of insurance companies, conducted by Ceres in 2011, revealed their sluggish response to climate change.

Andrew Logan, the director of Ceres’ insurance program, told the New York Times in February 2012, “The big takeaway from the survey last year is that there is a high level of concern among insurers about the impacts of climate change that is not matched by concrete plans to deal with those impacts. There is a real gap between the risk that’s been identified and plans to address it.”

This same NYT article explains that three states–California, New York and Washington State–are now requiring insurance companies to disclose their plans to respond to the risks of climate change, which seems but a meager baby step forward in light of their European counterparts’ strides.

But back to positive thinking…

Whether you call it “finding solutions” or just “mitigating the cost of the problem,” either way, it’s not a bad thing for global giants like Munich RE to be thinking hard about the riskier world promised by climate change and to be trying out some solutions. We can hope more companies will continue joining them at the drawing board and on the battlefield.

(Insert disclaimer: I claim no expertise in insurance. In fact–and somewhat embarrassingly–I had never given the idea of insurance a whole lot of thought before writing this post. So if you notice any major conceptual holes, I blame my lack of knowledge and/or desire for brevity.)

Further reading

Case study on Munich RE by the Canadian National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy

Insurance payouts point to climate change,” ScienceNews, 4 January 2012

Why the insurance industry gets climate change,” The Guardian, 28 June 2011

Can the insurance industry survive climate change?CSRWire, 8 June 2011

Insurance in a climate of change,” Science Magazine, 12 August 2005


Filed under Environment