I came across this in the Telegraph a day or two back.
Back in the dark ages of early 2011, the Cabinet Office began grappling with one of the most serious issues facing our age: loft insulation. A curious anomaly was emerging in official statistics — that no one wanted it. Huge subsidies had been ploughed into lagging and rolls of fibreglass; there were generously-incentivised installation schemes, that would pay for themselves within months. It was, to use non-Whitehall patois, a no-brainer. And yet public adoption rates were minuscule. Policymakers were baffled.
Step forward, then, a new Government team, with a new way of thinking.
Using research, plus a smidgen of common sense, they quickly identified the problem: laziness. More specifically, the sheer hassle of clearing an attic before you can insulate it. This alone was deterring us from taking up, effectively, a free lunch. And so, in a pilot trial in September 2011, they suggested a simple solution: that insulation firms offer to clear the lofts first, and dispose of our unwanted junk. In weeks, the uptake increased threefold, even though it cost the customer more.
I have a slight personal interest in thermal insulation. I’ve written about this before, but about 40 years ago, as a student, I worked out that in the UK the optimum thickness of polyurethane foam cavity wall insulation was about 6 inches. Or maybe 4 inches. So what did I do? I hotfooted it to the people who wrote the UK’s Building Regulations, of course, and told them they should require 6 inches – or maybe 4 inches – of cavity wall insulation in new buildings. It would save a lot of money, I jabbered.
They were very kind and considerate, and gave me a cup of tea, and pointed out that, while they were quite sure my calculations were correct, they wouldn’t feel justified in requiring people to include such amounts of insulation if there wasn’t a good health and safety justification for doing so, however great the savings might be. One of them added, as an afterthought, that such requirements might even be construed to be a ‘a tad fascistic’.
I chewed over that last remark, until in the middle of the night few weeks later I sat up in bed, and thought, ‘He’s right! It is fascistic! We shouldn’t be forcing people by law to do things which will save them money. Or save them anything. People should build houses any way they like. If they want to build them out of tissue paper and string, that’s up to them.”
A few weeks later, the draft of the latest version of the Building Regulations appeared on my doorstep. With chagrin, I read that one of its new proposals was for a half inch of insulation to be included in cavity walls. They had acted on my proposal!
Anyway, since then fascists have clearly taken over writing not only the Building Regulations, but pretty much everything else as well, and we now have an entire government team trying to figure out ways to coax and cajole people into doing things that somebody else thinks will be “good for them”. In fact the entire purpose of government has shifted from us telling them (via the ballot box) what’s good for us, to them telling us what’s good for us – and using our taxes to amplify the message.
It’s a casual, unthinking fascism that comes of focusing on one single measure. In my case, 40 years ago, the measure was heat loss. And when you look at things in this sort of one-dimensional way, you tend to disregard everything else. Heat loss becomes the only thing that matters.
But there are all sorts of other ways of cutting heat losses than filling walls with foam insulation. These days I live in an almost completely unheated flat, but I keep myself warm – and that’s really the only thing I want to keep warm. And I do it very largely by wearing as much indoors as I do outdoors. In fact, slightly more, because when I’m out and about, I’m usually walking briskly, and that warms me up a fair bit. But when I’m at home, I do next to no brisk walking at all, so I need to wear a bit more. I often think that there’s probably a market for clothes with built-in heating elements, and smart insulation. Such clothes would allow air temperatures inside buildings to fall to near zero, and windows to be kept open as well (I always keep a window or two slightly open). and entirely dispense with any need not only for heating systems, but also for roof and wall insulation too.
Except that now you are required by law to have 1 or 2 inches of wall insulation in your walls (or maybe they’re up at the full 6 inches by now), and so you’ve effectively been locked into the current heating paradigm. Because somebody knows ‘better’ than you do what’s good for you.
It’s a bit like someone not only whittling away at the range of cars on sale, but also telling you what’s the right car for you. It’s been designed by experts, and it’s called a Trabant. And it’ll be Good For You. Yes it will.
Another one-dimensional measure is ‘health’. It’s the only thing that matters. But while heat loss is a tightly defined quantity, ‘health’ is rather more ill-defined, and seems to have become conflated with longevity, so that the healthier you are, the longer you will live. And of course the Nudge Unit is using the longevity measure:
Health is a key focus, in fact: more than half the years of healthy life lost are due to behavioural factors. So again, the unit works with human nature. An anti-smoking pilot, started in early 2011 in conjunction with Boots, offered rewards to those who signed a contract to quit smoking. This year the unit is looking at placing signs at supermarket checkouts, emphasising how much fruit and vegetables the average shopper buys. And it will soon confront the thorny issue of organ donation — by prompting the question not only on driving licence applications, but also on social media such as Facebook.
Then there are, as Halpern puts it, the “quirky” subjects. Smokeless cigarettes, for example. While many countries, unsure about their health risks, have moved to ban them, Halpern’s team thinks that’s a mistake. It’s far better, they argue, to ask smokers to adopt a similar behaviour that, while possibly not risk-free, is less dangerous than smoking proper, than to ask them to quit completely.
“If you give someone a decent alternative, it’s a lot easier,” says Halpern. “There are 10 or 12 million smokers in Britain, of which roughly half die from their habit. So even with a 20 per cent substitution, you’re talking about a million lives.”
I have no idea where this idea that “half of all smokers die from their habit” comes from. By this I suppose it’s meant that “half of all smokers die from ‘smoking-related diseases’” like cancer and heart disease. But what disease isn’t ‘smoking-related’ these days? Even cervical cancer, which is now well known to be caused by Human Papillomavirus (HPV), is still described as ‘smoking-related’. So why don’t they just go the whole hog and just say that “all smokers die from their habit”?
Anyway, clearly the psychologists in the Nudge Unit have drunk the kool-aid, and accept it as a matter of fact that half of all smokers die from their habit. But other considerations are filtering through.
But then, not every “nudge” has proved popular. Halpern himself hit the headlines last February when he suggested the elderly should move into smaller homes to prevent loneliness, and be encouraged to return to work.
Good to know that loneliness is becoming another problem for these know-alls to address. As it happens, the smoking ban that they demanded – in order to improve ‘health’ – has resulted in more or less the complete destruction of my social life, while having zero impact on my tobacco consumption. And no, I don’t want to go back to work in some office somewhere, just so I can huddle outside with all the smokers in the rain and wind, and swap tips about ways to keep warm.
But this must always be the result when any single measure – be it heat loss or ‘health’ – comes to dominate thinking, to the exclusion of all else. It doesn’t matter whether it’s heat loss or health or human contact: once one of them becomes an idol that all must worship, all the rest must suffer.
One day when I have lots of friends again, friendship and community will probably have been elevated into idols, and we’ll probably all be freezing cold, and dying of diphtheria or tuberculosis. Which we wouldn’t be, if these interfering bastards had just left us alone to strike our own balance.