Teaching Sustainability

So I was at an aunt’s place last night to celebrate Diwali, and we were celebrating with fireworks. Don’t raise a stink about my carbon footprint here since that’s besides the point. Also besides the point is that I spent a long time playing on the swing in my aunt’s house and thoroughly enjoyed himself.

So the deal is that most “night fireworks” are lit with sparklers (sursurbatti in Kannada). So in order to keep the fireworks going, it is important that there is at least one burning sparkler at any point in time. Now, it is a big pain to light a sparkler directly, using something like a matchstick or a candle. The easiest way to light a sparkler is from another sparkler. I’m reminded of the technical definition of a chain-smoker, who is defined as a smoker who uses only one matchstick a day – the rest of his cigarettes being lit from other cigarettes.

Anyways the point is that in order to light fireworks “sustainably” it’s important to keep a chain of sparklers going. It is important that before a sparkler burns out, you use it to light another, and so forth. That way you end up wasting little time in terms of lighting new sparklers from candles. So it is usually the duty of an “elder” (a role that I took upon myself last night) to keep the chain of sparklers going, so that the rest can have uninterrupted fun.

So what I found last night was that my niece and nephew, in their eagerness to play with fireworks, would end up taking sparklers from my hand faster than I could build the chain. It happened way too frequently. I would have just lit a sparkler when they would take it from my hands and not return it, thus preventing me from keeping the chain going. Clearly, they didn’t know how to light fireworks “sustainably”. They prioritized immediate gain to the “loss” in terms of time wasted in lighting new sparklers.

So it was down to incentives. Whenever the chain of sparklers was broken, it was up to either me or one of my cousins to make the effort to light a new sparkler “from scratch” and start a new chain. The kids weren’t involved in this, and were oblivious of the pain that their unsustainable practices caused. And got me thinking about how I could “safely” align the kids’ incentives with sustainability.

Soon the lamps in the garden ran out of oil, and that changed the whole ball game. Now, every time the chain got broken, someone had to go into the house to light a new sparkler and restart the chain. And being one of the younger ones around, it fell to my niece to go in each time the chain was broken and get her mother to light a sparkler. The incentives had changed.

Suddenly there was change in my niece’s behaviour. She suddenly became active in terms of keeping the sparkler chain going. She never took sparklers from me when I didn’t have a spare that would keep the chain going. When she saw sparklers in my hand burning out, she would bring new sparklers to me so that I continued the chain. Her change in behaviour was sudden, and significant. Her brother, who was deemed to be too young to run in to get new sparklers lit to start new chains, however continued in his profligate ways.

So this is like one of those posts that I call as “management guru” posts. Where I tell a long-winded story to describe a simple concept. The concept here being one of sustainability, and aligning incentives. So the point is that if you want to encourage sustainable use of natural resources, users’ interests should be aligned to sustainability. They need to be punished in the short run for drawing too much.

One thought on “Teaching Sustainability”

  1. I am quite surprised that such a complicated description of something this simple has not received any comments!! This so doesn’t seem like a response you’d get for such posts on your blog.

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