Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Saving (Civilization) for Our Retirement

A note before I really dig in:  It bugs me a little when people speak about saving the Earth, thus I refer to saving civilization rather than saving the Earth in the title of this week's post.  It strikes me as exceedingly unlikely that we'll do away with the Earth through our actions, or even life on Earth.  It's not Earth that needs saving.  It's about us, and the things we depend upon.  We're dependent upon nature and the services she provides, so we should be protective of nature for that reason (and, of course, because it's pretty jerky to destroy stuff).

My title still isn't quite on the mark.  I expect some semblance of civilization will live on.  I thought about  "Saving the Environment," but here too, the environment will still exist, but it might be less able to provide the services we rely on it for, like clean air, clean water, and sufficient food.  It's really about:

Saving a Reasonable Quality of Life for Our Retirement
Not quite as catchy, is it?

Now, on with the main attraction:
Yesterday I read The Importance of Risk Perception for Effective Climate Change Communication, a blog post on by David Ropeik.  (I cited a different Ropeik blog post in my post a couple of weeks ago).  Ropeik is an expert on risk assessment, and here he's talking about what his title implies, as one might expect.  Quoting at some length from his post:
The ho hummers: A majority (albeit fluctuating) believes climate change is real, but when you ask those people how much they’re willing to spend, or do, about it, broad support turns thin. Why?
  • We worry less about risks that we don’t think can really happen to us. Can you name one way that climate change will seriously negatively impact you in the next 10 years? Most people, even ardent believers, can’t.
  • We worry less about risks the further off in the future they are. Despite the changes already occurring, the dramatic disruptions of climate change are usually depicted as years, and decades, away. This softens even our extra sensitivity about risks to our kids. The immediate perils of abduction and vaccines (perceived) carry more weight than risks far off in the future.
  • We worry less about abstract risks, risks that are presented as ideas and “science,” hard-to-get-our-heads-around risks of global scale and centuries-long time spans, and risks depicted impersonally with facts and figures, rather than real human victims. 
  • We worry less about risks caused by choices that also produce benefits. The benefit of the behaviors that cause climate change are enormous – since energy from fossil fuels provides the comfortable way of life in which the developed world currently lives and the way the developing world wants to.
  • We worry less about risks over which we have some control.
How do we apply these insights to the challenge of encouraging public support for adaptation? 
I liked this image with Ropeik's post as well.  
And it gives me a nice image to post with the link on Facebook.  
And you can do that too, you know.
(Hint, hint).

Reading Ropeik's words got me thinking about a post I wrote a few weeks ago: What can we learn from public health education initiatives?  There are some clear parallels here.  And it got me thinking about another realm for useful metaphors.

Ropeik's bulleted list applies to climate change, selected health issues, and to saving for retirement.

I'm 47.  It will take a while for decisions about saving for retirement to have a huge effect on me.  

I'm 47.  It will take a while for decisions about climate change to have a huge effect on me.

I wonder what we can learn from effective campaigns to get folks to save for their retirement.  Unfortunately, like in realms of public health, there aren't as many successful campaigns to point to as I'd like.  My wife reminds me with some regularity that we're not saving enough for retirement.  That doesn't make us unusual.

I could snidely say that makes us American.  But I won't.

Each of those bullets above applies both to climate change and to retirement saving.  Read the list again and think about how they apply.

You know I'll wait.

Are you saving enough money for retirement?  If so, what has led you to do that?  If not, what's stopping you?  What do you think will get you to change your savings behavior?

Know that the most obvious answer, "make more money," tends to bring with it its goofy cousin, "spend more money."  Fortunately, you can shoo that goofy cousin away, if you're vigilant.  You can probably find some ways to cut spending now even if you can't make more money.

It just so happens, that many of the things you can do to reduce spending also reduce emissions.  My colleagues and I have written about programs that can reduce your energy costs in this space before (here's one post of many), and simply being more frugal in many ways also goes to saving a reasonable quality of life for your retirement.

You, acting alone, might save sufficient personal financial assets for the future, but we will have to work together to save the shared environmental assets for our shared future.

So, what can we learn from saving for retirement?  What can you teach us about it?

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