Changing the world with pocket change

Ever since I saw his talk at TED 2009, I’ve come to like the perspective of marketing executive Rory Sutherland. His major thesis is that value is more subjective than we tend to think, and thus we can increase value and happiness through ways that don’t cost all that much money or labor. In this talk he applies the thesis to the environmental movement- with enough understanding of what humans value and what makes them happy, you can keep a high level of happiness with fewer material goods. Fewer trees cut down, less plastic in the ocean, a more sustainable energy system.

A later talk, called “sweat the small stuff” talks about how effect and cost are too often assumed to be correlated. The idea that big change could be ingenious and cheap is not in the contemporary vocabulary. In fact, he ends with this graph and asks the audience to name the grey quadrant.

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This is not to state that massive social problems do not at some level require a large amount of money and labor. But the point is that if the big parts of a process are a train- the capital, the manpower, and overall goal; then the small stuff are the rails- language, cultural understanding, small-level behavior. If you’re part of the WHO, and you’re trying to eradicate a disease in Pakistan, it’s not just the vaccines and workers. How do you get the population to vaccinate their children? How do you make it universal? How do you avoid clashes with local authorities? This isn’t just a question of money, it’s about understanding other people and encouraging cooperation.

Government programs need comprehensible forms and processes, corporate products need packaging and instructions. If you give machinery to a developing country, it’s not just teaching locals to use it, but also how they will continue to use it and not sell it for scrap. What divides a billion dollars of foreign aid money from being useless (except for a few lucky government officials) or incredibly powerful are small details.

What’s the cost of expanding landfill and increasing cleanup efforts? In contrast, think of how much money was spent changing “garbage” on kiosks in restaurants and airports to “landfill.” Changing human decisions in the small scale may seem trivial at first glance, but in the aggregate it’s key to improving the Earth.

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