Last week in Stockholm was tossing-out-your-tree week. Those Christmas trees (and not Holiday trees) have served their purpose and, although still green, are suddenly worth as much as a Middle Eastern ceasefire agreement.
The thing is that the Swedes like to toss their trees out on the nearest street corner. I thought this was a cute tradition, until I read in the papers that nobody is actually prepared to pick them up, and that everybody just does this out of sheer laziness.
The local authorities in Stockholm are complaining loudly about this, and are annoyed that they have to use up extra resources to schlepp those trees off the streets.
The thing is: this happens every year. And when you notice that something happens on an annual basis then you should actually be prepared for it. You can pour as much guilt on the public as you want, but if they are not presented with an easy way to solve a problem, then people will FIND an easy way – that is, tossing the trees onto the street.
Now this is a reflection of a very basic fact of human nature, and a thing that reaches into most problems faced by humanity: we do what is easiest for us.
And there are, you see, 2 things you can do when faced with something that everybody does and that is seen as “problem behaviour”.
The first thing is try and get people to change. To do this you can offer incentives (usually economic); you can make and enforce laws; or you can try and make people feel guilty. Only the first two of these work. The environmental lobby has been trying the third one for years and while it may work partially, for a time, there will always be a backlash. Because, simply, people get bored with constant guilt. It’s a pain in the arse.
The second thing you can do is to realise that if you cannot change human behaviour then you instead embrace it and exploit it. Now this one is more difficult to do, although it can be done. For example (and this comes from the excellent, life-changing book Cradle to Cradle), if you notice that people toss their paper coffee cups from the train and they end up all over the countryside, then you could changed the material the cups are made from to something biodegradable which feeds the soil, plus you put a seed in each one, so that a new tree will sprout where they land.
For the tree problem, you might heartily encourage people to throw their trees on the street on a certain evening. You make it a big event, like a party, and drive a few trucks around to receive them. Or you might instead give a small bounty for each tree brought in and get the school kids to do it for you.
Guilt is counter-productive; just ask any ex-Catholic. And keep in mind that any argument starting with the phrase “if only everybody would” is doomed to failure. Because everybody won’t, and you damned well know it.