Are your heuristics right?

I recently took a course on Sustainability with Coursera, and one of the last lectures was really interesting to me; it was about “heuristics” – ‘shortcuts’ we use in thinking to help us make our minds up about various issues or to make decisions, specifically the ones we use for decision making in terms of being environmentally friendly.  For example, my heuristic for deciding on a healthy snack choice is for fruits/vegetables over processed food.

But are our heuristics right?

Tim Harford, an economist, wrote a book called ‘Adapt’, which is partly about complex systems (the main point though is about how we need to make a lot of little mistakes in order to find what works; the tagline is “Why success always starts with failure”).  One of the chapters is on trying to find solutions to climate change, and he tells a hypothetical story of a newly converted environmentalist who wakes up one morning and decides to be environmentally friendly.  So he drinks a glass of milk instead of boiling the kettle for coffee, unplugs his mobile phone charger, takes the bus to work, buys locally sourced food for lunch and dinner but is so tired he forgets to turn off his computer when he goes home and leaves it on standby.  He then does the dishes by hand instead of using the dishwasher, buys energy efficient lightbulbs but stops from replacing them thinking it might take up fewer resources if he allows his current ones to burn out first.

Then he goes on to discuss how this newly converted environmentalist’s actions were not so environmentally friendly as he thought; that glass of milk came from a cow which produces a lot of methane and takes a lot of crops to feed, locally sourced food probably has more embedded carbon (the carbon emitted from all the processes it takes to produce the food) than imported food due to the inefficiencies of locally grown food (for instance in the UK tomatoes are grown in greenhouses which need heating, while tomatoes from Spain take advantage of natural heat), leaving his computer on standby more than offset unplugging his mobile phone charger, using a dishwasher actually saves more electricity and water than handwashing dishes and he should have installed those energy efficient lightbulbs as soon as he got home from the shops because the old ones waste so much energy it’s worth replacing them straight away.

In other words, this newly converted environmentalist was full of bad heuristics.  Maybe there were a few things in the above paragraph that surprised you, and no one would blame you.  Being environmentally friendly is difficult, and we get told information on how to be environmentally friendly that is often contradictory.  The point that Tim Harford was making was that it is a very complex world, and it is difficult for a single person to determine what is better or worse for the environment.

Almeria: Agribusiness Cluster. Source:

Almeria: Agribusiness Cluster. Source:

For instance, I started with the concept of ‘food miles are bad’. Then I learned that actually, food miles are a very small proportion of the ‘embedded carbon’ of a food product, and generally, imported food is cheaper because they use less resources, and have less embedded carbon, and therefore more environmentally friendly.  Then I visited my boyfriend’s family in Northern England where his uncle turned up with a pack of locally grown tomatoes… which had been grown in greenhouses which had used excess heat from the nearby power station.  So now these locally grown tomatoes were even more environmentally friendly than the ones from Spain!

Each case is complex, of course, and I will still stick to the general heuristic that locally grown tomatoes in the UK are less environmentally friendly than tomatoes from Spain (unless they are from that particular part of England).  You might also have other reasons for your choices besides being environmentally friendly, such as supporting communities, animal welfare, tastiness, etc.

I unfortunately can’t give you a list of popular wrong heuristics about living sustainbly, I’ve probably got a lot of it wrong myself.  But I would urge you to think your way through your current heuristics about being environmentally friendly and see if anything needs changing or researching.  For products a good thing to think about is where they come from, and what sorts of processes and amount of resources went into making them and delivering them.  I also hope in the future to write a series of articles on clearer thinking for environmentalists, so keep checking back here for that!

In the meantime, to help, here’s a great TED video about eating seafood sustainably: Barton Seaver: Sustainable Seafood? Let’s get smart.

From this video I guess I can leave you with one good environmentally friendly heuristic after all… In general, less is better.

Other Resources:

Food Miles and the Relative Climate Impacts of Food Choices in the United States (Journal article)

The next offering of Coursera’s Sustainability Course starts January 20th.  Sign up here.

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