Subtraction Could Help Climate Change

New research suggests we might be ignoring the easiest way to problem-solve.

For Leidy Klotz, the author of the new book Subtract: The Untapped Science of Less, the eureka moment happened several years ago when he was building a bridge out of Lego with his son, Ezra. One of the columns was shorter than the other, so Klotz turned around to grab a brick to even it out. When he turned back, Ezra had already fixed the problem, simply by taking a brick out of the longer column. Klotz, an engineering professor, started talking with fellow behavioral science researchers at the University of Virginia. He co-authored a study about those findings that was published in the journal Nature earlier this month and concluded that subtraction should be one of the first things we consider.


However, leaders throughout the world have been pushing: “Build Back Better.” The phrase now lends its name to the White House’s massive, multi-pronged proposal to help the country recover from the Covid-induced recession, tackle climate change, and bring the country’s railroads, bridges, and water pipes into the modern era.


But what if this ambitious plan misses an easier opportunity: remove what isn’t working? The Biden administration’s slogan reveals something about how people normally go about trying to improve the world - they’re driven by a default impulse to build big things to solve big problems.


Research suggests that people often overlook the option of getting rid of elements in favour of adding new ones, even when the simpler solution is superior. Behavioral scientists are making the case that a “subtractive” approach could be useful in tackling global problems like the climate crisis.


“What our paper implies is that we’re potentially missing out on an entire category of ways that we could solve problems,” said Gabrielle Adams, a professor of public policy and psychology at the University of Virginia who co-authored the study.


Klotz suggests that the old slogan “reduce, reuse, recycle” needs a 4th R: remove. “Reduce, reuse, recycle is not going to solve climate change, because you’ve already surpassed emissions,” he said. “I mean, remove should be one of the things that we consider, and should probably be the first thing we consider.”


What would that look like in the real world? It could mean adapting to heavier downpours by taking out pavement in a flood zone, or digging holes in it to allow the soil to soak up more water. Subtraction could also mean simply removing an old, falling-apart freeway in a city, as Seattle, San Francisco and Utrecht did, making way for parks, public transit, or affordable housing.


Subtraction is something that many people already understand on a basic level. There are plenty of truisms that teach about simplicity and minimalism, like “less is more” or Occam’s razor. The famous advice from Marie Kondo, the author-turned-TV-show-host who helps organize homes and teaches people to get rid of junk, is to only keep things that “spark joy.”


The question is, Klotz says: “How can we do that for meaningful problems, not just our cluttered closet?”

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