I was in Germany at a conference hosted by Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen family of companies when I heard this story. To me it epitomizes why change is so hard, and why the only real way to make hard change happen is to drive up the cost of the status quo. Here's the story.
In Yunus' Bangladesh the groundwater is laced with poison--arsenic, if I remember correctly.
The poor people of Bangladesh have no choice and so they drink the poisoned groundwater. Little by little it takes its toll on their health.
To remedy this insidious problem Yunus has partnered with a French company that bottles water. The partnership is another one of Yunus' social businesses--a hybrid of a social cause remedied by a company that has a sustainable business model. The water isn't free, but it is inexpensive, and the income generated from selling the water goes back into the business to produce more healthy water for the people of Bangladesh.
Now here's the tricky part.
The poor people of Bangladesh would rather drink the poisoned water that's free than pay for the bottled water that's healthy.
The logic must go something like this: I'm thirsty now. This water is free. It may kill me, but it won't kill me today. And maybe it won't kill me after all. This other water isn't poisoned, but it costs money. Water should be free. Why should I have to buy it? I think I'll drink the free, poisoned water, take my chances, and keep my money for other things where there is no free option.
So here's the question: How do you make or convince or inspire or provide incentives so that people make the right choice, even though it's more expensive in the short term?
How do you do that with water in Bangladesh? Or with energy in the United States? Or health care in the United States, or education or any other serious problem where the economics may appear favorable to make bad decisions in the short term, but cannot be healthy or sustainable in the long run?
One answer has to be to drive up the cost of the status quo.
There has to be a way to make what appears to be "free" take on the actual cost--the long-term cost. There has to be a way to add in social costs, environmental costs, human costs to choices that are simply bad choices.
There has to be a way to dramatize the real negative outcomes these choices lead to. There has to be a way to educate people so they can see what the future looks like, if they continue to take the easy path in the present.
There has to be a way to showcase the options that exist if people will only see the alternatives as they really are.
But until we find those ways, change will be hard, and people in Bangladesh will continue to drink poisoned ground water. Because, after all, it's free.
All Rights Reserved 2009 (c) Alan Webber, Rules Of Thumb