Why don’t more people just leave their cars at home? Why do so many people eat such terrible food? I am frequently in conversations where someone asks these types of questions. Sometimes the speaker is just a snob, using the question to really announce their own sense of superiority. But sometimes it’s a sincere bewilderment. Why do people make choices that end up hurting not only themselves but our society in the long run? And how can we get them to change?
Few people are consciously self-destructive. The reason most Americans drive, just like the reason that so many Americans eat bad food, is because given the surrounding context it makes sense to do so. Our homes jobs, shopping centers, schools, and friends are often located far away from each other, extending across the metro region into the suburbs. Public transportation doesn’t typically connect scattered starting points with equally scattered destinations – assuming that’s its available at all. Cars are often a necessity.
Are people choosing all this? To some extent, yes. For many people, a sleek, powerful car exudes an almost sexual energy and a promise of freedom that underlies both teenage boys’ desperation to get their first license and the rise of NASCAR to this country’s most popular sport. In the 1950s, after two decades of hardship and constraints during the Great Depression and World War II, many new couples wanted to escape the oppressive confines of tight-knit urban ethnic neighborhoods. A more spacious home in a quiet, safe, and tree-covered neighborhood was a dream that many people pursued.
But to a large extent, people had no choice. While they may have wanted more personal freedom and comfortable lives, the way those desires could be realized were limited by the policies set by national leaders. The Interstate Highway System, the mortgage subsidies provided by the GI bill and tax codes, urban renewal, and other programs crafted by major business interests and passed by political leaders responded to voter’s desires, but did so by constructing a vision of the good life shaped by commercial interests and business values. The America we now live in was not solely imposed from above; but neither was it created from below. Consumers had some degree of choice; but the options they had to choose between channeled development and society in controlled directions. As a result, the path to a better life was through the sprawling suburbs. The road to a higher standard of living had to be traveled by a personally-owned car.
A similar dynamic happened in the food world. The desire for convenience, like the desire for better health, has no limit. Few people are ever likely to say that they don’t want more of either. And given the increasing time pressures on our lives as work hours expand, real wages stagnate, and families become more dispersed, low-cost convenience becomes a necessity rather than an option. At the same time we are evolutionarily driven to crave once-hard-to-get salty, high-energy (meaning fatty and sugary) foods. But the empty-calories provided by the fast food industry are not the only way those cravings could have been satisfied. It is just the way that the corporatized food industry found most profitable, and therefore the only choice that most Americans have been given.
The problem is that if everyone uses their own car, they not only use up an increasing share of their limited income, but our overall transportation system comes to a congested and polluting halt. If everyone eats junk food, they not only become susceptible to the long list of chronic diseases associated with overweight, but more nutritious alternatives are pushed out of the economy and our national sick-care system begins to collapse.
Of course, no one is being forced at gunpoint to go to McDonalds, just like no one is being forced to drive a car everywhere. But when nearly two-thirds of the population has become overweight with almost a third of them clinically obese, primarily because of poor nutrition and inadequate physical activity, then we’ve moved beyond individual choice to a systemic problem. Our society has made bad choices the default option. And changing a default, changing the system, requires moving beyond trying to change individual behaviors to changing the human environment that determines population-wide patterns.
A default is something that requires no thought, no special preparation, no extra effort, and no unusual cost. It is what the surrounding environment has made easy to do. A default is the sensible, normal, assumed behavior. It’s what “everyone” does.
It’s a little like walking along a smooth path with towering cliffs on each side. At every step, we are as free to climb the cliff as we are to continue strolling with our friends on the level path. But climbing is hard; the benefits aren’t clear. Even stopping after every step to think about the choice quickly gets unproductive. So, unless the level path gets washed out and we simply can’t wait for a repair, unless we become convinced that there is a huge payoff for risking the cliff, unless we are the kind of social misfit who simply thrives on being different – we’re going to stay on the path and keep enjoying the company of the overwhelming majority of the population who are doing the same thing. The comfortable path has become our default choice.
Radically ignoring the status quo isn’t something most people do lightly, or every day, or even more than a few times over the course of an entire life. And because we like to think of ourselves as making good decisions and living a meaningful life, we tend to find lots of good reasons to think that what we are doing – whether going straight or heading up the cliff – is an acceptable, or perhaps even a better, choice. That is, not only our behaviors but our beliefs are shaped by our efforts to do well within a given societal context.
Asking people to individually go against the core defaults built in to our society is unlikely engage more than a small minority of people. People who make this kind of personal stand are very important. They bring urgency to the issue. They preserve the vision when progress seems impossible. They can explore and model alternative ways of meeting everyday needs. And they can become change agents focused on the surrounding society. Which is crucial because, in the long run, it is the surrounding society that must be the focus of our efforts since the only way to change the behavior of large numbers of people is to change the defaults built into their decision-making context — the socio-economic system we live in.
The good news is that the environment we are dealing with is not the result of natural laws or divine commands. It is a built environment, created piece by piece over many years by human decisions and human actions. To change it we have to work for incremental improvements that marginally improve the situation without fundamentally changing the underlying power dynamics that limit our choice in the first place. But we also have to take advantage of crises to push for transformative reforms that restructure the core patterns that shape our defaults. And while it’s always important to talk about our vision, values, and goals, we have to never blame individuals for being normal, for surviving as best they can in the world as they know it – even if we think their choices are both personally irrational and socially destructive.