The Cost/Benefit Ratio and the Need for More Public Information on Conservation

In a past entry I discussed the need for better public information to enable more sustainable decisions. The initial assumption here is that, if more detailed and comprehensive information about our choices is known, such as how much energy cost goes into the life of a paper towel versus the cost of having and laundering a cloth towel, the average person could make decisions that are better from a sustainability perspective. Several questions arise around the compilation and dissemination of such information, however. These include whether people will be able to understand the information and place it in an appropriate context, how comprehensive, complete, and detailed the information needs to be, how far we should go in pursuing this information, and what factors impede and promote the dissemination of sustainability related information.

The first question is: does the average member of the public have sufficient education to understand the information they receive? I have discussed the importance of world-wide public education to sustainability in a previous post, and will not address it here, in part because I think the answer is intuitive: more people need the education and global perspective for information about daily choices to be understood and actionable. (link, link)

The second question is: is the cost of obtaining the information justified by the benefit it provides?

My experience working in large commercial organizations has indicated to me that the cost-to-benefit ratio (cost/benefit) for information is rarely well understood. In business, sometimes overly-nervous management will push for detail that takes a lot of time and energy to determine, but, in the end, provides little additional benefit. For example, when trying to determine the status of a hundred separate parts to be made into a complete assembly, it may be possible to determine whether the parts will be ready on time from a sample of 85% of the total. This doesn’t provide 100% certainty that the assembly can be made on time, but can tell with certainty if some parts will NOT be able to support the assembly operation. The time and energy required to get suppliers to respond with information on the other 15% of the parts may not only take longer than the time available, but distract the staff seeking the information from other important tasks, without which the assembly operation might not be able to occur in any case.

This is an example of the “roughly right” concept which often comes into highly complex projects. While, in the limited context of business, it makes perfect sense to want to know with certainty that 100% of the needed parts will be available on time, it may be practically impossible to know this, and the effort to achieve 100% perfect information with available staff and time may make the desired assembly operation virtually guaranteed to fail for lack of other preparation. Similarly, the public doesn’t need to have perfect information to make informed decisions, but can act appropriately based on “roughly right” information, and make the right decisions to make our transition to a sustainable world situation less difficult and painful.

At the other extreme is the more easily understood example where a business makes little effort to find out if all the needed personnel and equipment will be available for an assembly operation and, while they have all the parts on hand at the appointed time, it turns out that a key element of the process is not available, making the desired event impossible. As with the sustainability problem, the later the point at which it is decided that enough facts are known, and appropriate action can be initiated, the higher the cost generally will be. The truth comes out, sooner or later, but later can be much worse for all concerned.

The point is, the cost of obtaining information and the cost (risk) of not knowing it meet at a point, past which, there is significantly less benefit of gaining more, and in some cases the effort to get more may actually harm the chances of achieving the end goal. The point where it is best to make a commitment and move ahead, accepting that different bits of information have different costs of acquisition, must be balanced against the benefit of knowing them to decide how much effort should be devoted to acquiring more information. This can also be seen as the point where the benefit of each bit of information is at a maximum, beyond which the incremental benefit of gaining another bit of information declines in a way that does not justify the risk of waiting to make decisions and take action. This is a tough point to identify, and requires both experience and good , well chosen, previous information to determine. It also makes clear the need to identify early on the value of different types of information and focus on those types with the most benefit to the decision making process.

In cases of environmental information the benefit can be huge if the information reaches the majority of consumers, because their numbers are so great. The mass media in the world are now so developed that I imagine a majority of the world’s population can be reached with any piece of information within a couple of days, many within minutes or hours, if the owners of the media see conveying that information as important. If a significant proportion of the public can be informed, the potential impact on environmental problems and the potential for moving globally towards a sustainable situation are great.

The third question is: what is the relative cost, and what are the inherent difficulties in getting information and conveying it to the public?

The cost of acquiring the needed information should not be prohibitive. The acquisition of the total cost of a paper towel or motor vehicle, while a demanding job, is already half complete in that the manufacturers of such products, from the raw material suppliers to the merchandisers, understand most of their costs as a part of doing business. Many organizations involved understand the entire chain of production and delivery. The effort to collect the information from corporations and compile it can be carried out by academics, and the costs can be estimated where detailed facts are not immediately available, to provide a consolidated piece of information capable of guiding consumer decisions.

This information must be packaged in a way that is clearly understandable by a person of some minimal level of education, a task perfected by many writers in the course of their profession, and the information must be translated into the appropriate languages for the buyers of the product in question. Then the information must be delivered to the consumers. So where is the most difficult stage in this process?

The most difficult part of this scenario appears to be in convincing the media that the information needs to be disseminated. Business and political organizations that see conservation working against their influence and/or financial status may lobby or apply pressure against media organizations to prevent the information from being disseminated. Also, some groups are skeptical of information that indicates humans are negatively affecting the planet, or that we are in danger of serious problems from overpopulation, and argue against such information and try to block its dissemination. In addition, in some countries the government may see risk in providing such information to the public, and be unwilling to do so.

In the developed countries, media organizations that get more viewers or readership and higher ratings from broadcasting information with much less long-term benefit will not include information important to achieving sustainability in their programming. Sensationalist news, political punditry, reality programming, and soap operas, for example, may bring in higher ratings and more advertising dollars than information on whether it is more ecologically responsible to use paper towels versus cloth towels in your kitchen. (Does the impact of making a better decision regarding paper towel use have more ecological impact than the electricity saved if people would refrain from watching TV programming of little particular value and read a library book instead? These questions are not simple … but need answers leading to popular understanding.)

The challenge of getting the media to help raise public awareness, and influence public priorities for information intake and appropriate decision making, is a big one. One way this has been approached is to dramatize or sensationalize our environmental challenges, and I believe the movie “An Inconvenient Truth” is a very effective example of this. As in many matters, the movie was a double-edged sword. While it got a great deal of public attention, made a lot of people think, and scared many people into paying more attention to environmental issues, which was good, it also produced a backlash among skeptics and those who already had internalized political attacks on Al Gore, who used his high level of public visibility to give the movie widespread exposure. Since then, increased attacks and slander against Al Gore have appeared in the media. Hopefully most people will see past this to understand that the underlying ecological issues and the need to achieve sustainability are more important, and deserve their attention.

Personally, I think the net effect of the movie was positive, and far more people experienced a needed increase in consciousness of the seriousness of current and future environmental issues than were turned into hard-core skeptics. Certainly, any net increase in the number of people looking ahead to our future problems and the critical need to achieve sustainability in the long run is very positive. If this is what it takes to raise the consciousness of the global public, then so be it, but eventually the interest in and understanding of the need for a sustainable world economy in the future must become a part of world culture, at which time sensationalist approaches will no longer be necessary.

As always, I welcome constructive comment. (Please “wise me up.”)


2 responses to “The Cost/Benefit Ratio and the Need for More Public Information on Conservation

  1. Great page.., dude

  2. Pingback: Incentives for Improvement Leading to Sustainability « Tim Prosser’s Futuring Weblog

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