Climate Change

A Green Contagion: What Could Make Investing in Nature Catch On?

June 26, 2013

Figure: Google searches for the term "green infrastructure," 2004-present. Interest in “green infrastructure” measured by weekly Google searches (black line is average trend). The number 100 represents the peak search interest. What could make such search interest in “green infrastructure” increase? And would such an increase translate into more widespread use of nature-based solutions, like storm protection from coastal marshes?

By Sheila Walsh Reddy, senior scientist, Sustainability Science, The Nature Conservancy

The term “green infrastructure” — the idea that nature can help solve problems typically addressed with man-made structures, like coastal marshes protecting us from storms instead of levees or sea walls — has been getting steady Google search traffic since around 2008 (see figure above).

But when will “green infrastructure” (or synonyms such as “natural infrastructure” or “nature’s defenses”) take off as a popular concept? And what could help it launch? Applying new research and thinking about how ideas become contagious could make the difference.

Why New Information is Never Enough: The Importance of Behavioral Economics and Social Psychology

Green infrastructure often has some great selling points over man-made infrastructure: it can be cheaper, and it provides other bonuses like habitat for wildlife, recreational areas and nice views. In the hopes that green infrastructure will sell itself, U.S. government agencies, researchers and the conservation community have been actively quantifying these benefits.

For example, the US EPA has a new tool, The Stormwater Calculator. It figures out how much property owners can reduce rainwater runoff by planting gardens around a parking lot, for instance. Similarly, at The Nature Conservancy, we recently worked with The Dow Chemical Company to compare storm protection from marshes side-by-side with storm protection from levees.

But is new information enough? Is it even the most important factor? Think a bit about how you make decisions and you’ll find yourself saying: No! Of course, not!

The experts agree. Behavioral economists (remember Freakonomics?), cognitive scientists and psychologists are compiling a rapidly growing catalogue of the strange and surprising things that influence our decisions other than information and logic.

Understanding how these factors affect the decisions of individuals or private organizations may be especially important because, in many cases, solving problems for an entire city or coastal community will require action on private land.

The good news is that researchers Sun and Hall (2013) recently showed that individuals could have just as big of an impact as a government-led program in Syracuse, NY. Based on the number of individuals that were willing to adopt green infrastructure and detailed models of stormwater, they estimated that private actions could reduce stormwater runoff by the same amount as the green infrastructure that could be implemented on available public lands.

Sun and Hill’s surveys also showed that individuals were more willing to plant rain gardens or trees if they had knowledge of green infrastructure and if they perceived there to be benefits from adopting green infrastructure.

So yes, we still need more Stormwater Calculators and studies quantifying the benefits of green infrastructure. But we also need to understand more precisely why and how people respond to messages about the value of nature. What influences people’s perceptions of these benefits? How and under what conditions do their perceptions turn into on-the-ground action? And how do perceptions and actions spread and reach critical mass?

Why Social Influence and Emotion are Keys to Contagious Ideas

Jonah Berger, who teaches marketing at Wharton, argues in his new book Contagious: Why Things Catch On that these dynamics are profoundly social. We listen to our friends, neighbors and co-workers when we make decisions about what restaurant to go to, what car to buy, or even what to name our children. And emotion often drives these conversations.

Green infrastructure is not emotional. But the impacts of Super Storm Sandy were. The nation was gripped by images of water gushing down New York’s subway, cars floating as Wall Street submerged below the tide, and waves flattening homes on the Jersey Shore.

In the aftermath of Sandy, suddenly people were talking about oyster reefs and marshes. In the New York Times, reporter Alan Feuer asked how tidal marshes could be part of a plan to protect Lower Manhattan before next time. By early this year, the New York State 2100 Commission issued recommendations for building a resilient New York, including promoting investment in green infrastructure that would not only help to protect New York from future storms, but also filter  stormwater and provide green space for wildlife and residents alike to enjoy.

It seems clear that, in the aftermath of a catastrophic event, both social influence and objective information played a role in the promotion of green infrastructure in New York. The challenge to conservation science and practitioners is to understand the relative importance of these factors and how they can be leveraged to promote widespread investment in nature — when it makes sense for people and biodiversity.

The lesson? Don’t get lost simply making an argument from the data; remember that we are social animals, too. To ensure that green infrastructure catches on, we need to build a campaign for it that takes advantage of new knowledge in behavioral economics and social psychology.


Berger, J. 2013. Contagious: Why things catch on. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Sun, N. and M. Hall. 2013. “Coupling human preferences with biophysical processes: modeling the effect of citizen attitudes on potential urban stormwater runoff.” Urban Ecosystems: 1-22.

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy. 

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