November 14, 2018

Have you ever watched people repeatedly do something that you deem to be perfectly crazy, but it’s just what everyone does? What if you could switch “normal” and “crazy”? This is the root of solving our environmental challenges. Tune in to find out more about how we can use “norm engineering” to get quicker results.

Green Team Academy Podcast with Joan Gregerson
Episode 34

I heard a radio interview with someone describing what Norm Engineering was, and unfortunately, I can’t find it. And at first, I laughed, because as an engineer, I have worked with at least three guys named Norm. And engineers, if nothing else, as a stereotype, I would say strive to be normal.

Anyhow, once I got this concept of norm engineering, it has helped me understand our challenges when it comes to creating societal change. We can learn from other changes that have come before.

I started drinking socially at about age 15. I started driving at age 16. So, I started driving drunk at age 16. So, did all my friends. It’s what we all did. Yes, people died from drunk driving. It was sad. But, I never considered that it’s something that needed changing or even could be changed. It was just part of drinking as a whole. If a friend was drinking, you’d ask if you could drive them home but if they said no, you didn’t push it. Because, hey, it’s your friend! And the next day, it was likely they’d brag about how drunk they were and that they’d made it home.

The concept of a Designated Driver wasn’t introduced in the U.S. in 1988 by the Harvard Alcohol Project. It was picked up by Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the Department of Transportation. The campaign included commercials with the message: Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk. And TV shows like Cheers, The Cosby Show and Friends began mentioning the Designated Driver. President Clinton taped commercials for the campaign.

Now, in my personal experience, I don’t hear people brag about driving drunk anymore. Why?

What was initially normal “driving drunk” is now crazy.
Having a Designated Driver is now normal. Not having one is crazy.

That’s norm engineering.

How did this happen?

The ad campaign started the movement, by redefining what a good friend is. It switched it from our implicit understanding that you don’t question your friend, to a definitive statement that friends don’t let friends drive drunk. So, you’re not a true friend if you let someone drink drunk.

But my research into the reasons people don’t drive drunk revealed something else.

As an Uber driver, I’ve talked to many people who tell me they are specifically going by Uber because they plan on drinking. The next comment is often the same. It’s not, “And I don’t want to kill someone.” Nope. It’s, “The fines and the hassle of getting caught driving drunk are so high, it’s just not worth the risk.”

In Colorado, I hear numbers like $10,000 to $20,000 in fines and associated costs of getting around without a car, going to mandatory classes and court appearances.

So, comparing what is normal now to what was normal in 1985, it’s completely flipped!

That is a societal change.

Why am I telling you this?

This is to give you hope and to give you a framework.

You can probably see that drilling fossil fuels that changed from dinosaurs into oil…

  • Drilling it
  • Heating it
  • Processing it into plastic bottles
  • Then filling those bottles
  • Shipping those bottles
  • So someone can purchase a plastic bottle
  • And within a few minutes sometimes empty the contents of the bottle
  • Then throw the bottle in the trash
  • Where it’s not going to decompose in the next century

You can see that that’s completely insane.

But, it’s the norm.

How do we get people to flip to not wanting to manufacture, purchase or dispose of those bottles?

We need to put norm engineering to work.

  • Yes, we need to somehow awaken the consumer and get them to consider that not buying that bottle is actually the easiest and best choice.
  • But probably more importantly, the societal cost of plastic needs to be brought into the equation. There need to be fines on the producing, buying and disposing of plastic.

I’m sorry that I can’t give you the magic answer to this one. Instead, I’m giving you a challenge. Can you come up with messaging that makes buying a plastic bottle seem ridiculous while advocating for fees that adequately capture the true cost of plastics?

What is the true cost of babysitting a piece of plastic for several years?

Norm engineering can be used anytime you’re advocating for change.

If you’re in a neighborhood like where I grew up in Denver, and many people still have water-guzzling lawns even though we are a mountain desert climate, how can you change the perspective to show that the good neighbors have converted their lawns to something else.

Figure out messaging that meshes with the neighbor’s values… increased property value, beautifications, sophisticated landscapes.

Advocate for water rates that reward efficient landscapes and penalize wasteful ones.

Discover how to launch and grow a green team in your community. Suggest a topic, get the free Green Team Quick Start Course and download the free Eco Film List at

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The time for action is now because there is no Planet B!

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