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Lick your teeth and recycle: The power of Habit and climate change.

I have been struggling with a question for couple of months now: how to motivate people when there is no return on investment? So, what do I mean by this and why is this important? This is how I see the future of our planet with regards to climate change(1). There are two obvious outcomes, we (humans) either fail and live in a world of rising seas and prolonged droughts, or we succeed and live life in a world that looks the same as the one we live in today. Success without gain troubles me. It is a far cry from the idea of success you see with the likes of Conor McGregor, Warren Buffett, Oprah Winfrey and Phil Knight. How can you motivate someone to make a change in their life when this change (if made by all of us) will make essentially no difference? I write now with the belief that we will tackle climate change and win.

The first thing I’d like to answer is, what else is this like? Is there a situation where we do something every day just to be the same? I believe I have found the answer. BRUSHING OUR TEETH. Please, bear with me here. I know it’s a bit ridiculous.  For the average person, we brush our teeth so they don’t fall out. Fair enough, some toothpastes make your teeth whiter, but in general we do it so our teeth don’t rot and decay. Can you see that parallels to climate change? If we fail to brush our teeth they will fall out sooner rather than later, and if we do decide to brush we will have the teeth we have now, as they are, for the foreseeable future. We tackle something now so that it can be the same in the future. Not so dissimilar to climate change in my opinion.

This wasn’t always the case, people didn’t always brush their teeth. So, what caused the change and can the community tacking climate change learn from this? Let me take you back to early 1900s America and introduce you to a great man, Claude Hopkins. He was an original ad man turning unknown products into household names and did so for the likes of Quaker Oats and Goodyear tires.

In the early 1900s Hopkins was approached by an old friend who had discovered an amazing product, Pepsodent, a minty and foamy toothpaste. Now Hopkins was at the top of the advertising industry, and frankly at the time this was financial suicide.  Hardly anyone brushed their teeth, and prior to Pepsodent only 7% of Americans owned a tube of toothpaste. It was no secret either that the health of Americans teeth was in sharp decline. As the country became wealthier, people were buying larger amounts of sugary, processed foods. When the government was recruiting people for World War One, so many recruits had rotten teeth that officials said poor dental hygiene was a national security risk.  Regardless, Hopkins took the job.

Now almost everyone brushes their teeth, so what exactly did Hopkins do?

He created a Habit Loop, and more importantly (and by mistake) he created a craving. The habit loop is a well-studied phenomenon and in its simplest form has three stages: Cue, Routine, Reward. First, there is a cue, a trigger, to tell your brain to go into automatic mode. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. And finally, the reward, which helps your brain figure out if the loop is worth remembering. Over time, this loop – cue, routine, reward, cue, routine, reward, cue, routine, reward –becomes more and more automatic. The cue and reward become intertwined until a powerful sense of anticipation and craving emerges.  See here for a deeper explanation, I got this information from Charles Duhigg’s book: The Power of Habit.


So how did Hopkins develop this habit loop for brushing your teeth? To sell Pepsodent, Hopkins needed a trigger that would justify toothpastes daily use. He focused on tooth film, the mucin plaques found on teeth. This film is a naturally occurring membrane that builds up on teeth regardless of what you eat or how often you brush. In fact, toothpaste didn’t do anything to help remove the film, but that didn’t stop Hopkins. This he decided was the cue to trigger the habit. So, he plastered ads all over America. One read “Just run your tongue along your teeth. You’ll feel the film – that’s what makes your teeth to look off color and invites decay”. The brilliance of this ad is that the cue was simple and almost impossible to ignore. Tell someone to run their tongue across their teeth and most will, and sure enough they will find the film. In fact, did you just run your tongue along your teeth?

After the campaign launched a quiet week passed. Then two. In the third week, demand exploded. There were so many orders for Pepsodent the company couldn’t keep up. In three years, the toothpaste went international. Before Pepsodent, as I said earlier, only 7% of American households had a tube of toothpaste, a decade later 65%, and after World War 2, the military downgraded their concerns about recruits’ teeth because most soldiers were brushing anyway.

However, there is something more needed to ingrain the habit loop, something that Hopkins didn’t know about: the reward, the craving.  Unlike other toothpastes at the time, Pepsodent contained citric acid, as well as doses of mint oil and other chemicals. The inventor of Pepsodent included these ingredients to make the toothpaste fresh, but what he didn’t realise is that they are irritants that create a cool, tingling sensation on the tongue and gums. People began to crave this sensation, and believed that if this sensation wasn’t there, their teeth didn’t get cleaned. Hopkins wasn’t selling beautiful teeth, he was selling the sensation. As the German/American economist and Harvard Professor said, “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill, they want a quarter-inch hole”.

So, bringing it all back to climate change. What have we learned?  To create a habit you need a cue, routine and a reward. This is the same with anything, for example exercise. Create a cue, an alarm maybe, then exercise and perhaps give yourself a nice smoothie when you’re finished. Another parallel to the climate change is sunscreen and skin cancer. If you apply sunscreen every day you reduce the risk of skin cancer, yet less than 10% of Americans do it. Why? No cue nor reward. So, to tackle climate change and create small changes in our daily lives we need to create the Habit Loop. Let’s take waste for example. You may see a cue on the packaging which causes you to recycle, then a reward of some kind. What this could be I have no idea, perhaps the recycling bin says, “good job”. Similarly, with cycling to work, the cue could be a sunny day and perhaps the business gives you a free coffee when you arrive.

I don’t know what we could use create these habit loops, but I believe they are the way forward. I find that many reasons we are pushed to make small positive changes is because of guilt and I don’t believe this is good way to motivate people. I think the Habit Loop is key, like the teeth brushing, it will help us to make many small positive changes even though there isn’t a direct or immediate return on investment.  Perhaps it isn’t the best way, but I believe it is a good answer to the question, how to motivate people when there is no return on investment?


  1. True, the climate is always changing, but here I am using United Nations definition of climate change. “Attributed directly or indirectly to human activity that alters the composition of the global atmosphere and which is in addition to natural climate variability”.
  2. For a bit of fun check out this old pepsodent ad:

Don’t just wait for a movement


In my previous blog piece, I referred to climate change as the ‘grandest of all problems’ ever faced by mankind. Imperial College London’s Grantham Institute’s briefing paper ‘Towards a unifying narrative for climate change’ states that the problem posed by climate change is an example of a ‘super-wicked’ problem. This relates to four factors which make it such a fiendishly difficult issue: the requirement for a solution is increasingly imminent; a co-ordinated central authority is required, in a neoliberal age where business trumps government; those who continue to cause the problem are the very ones who seek to find a solution; and policy responses often disregard the future in an almost irrational way.

A powerful quote comes from John Ashton of Chatham House and is as follows:

“Humanity has never faced a problem like climate change. Unlike poverty, hunger, disease and terrorism it affects everybody. Climate change is a ticking clock that we cannot stop or slow down… The essence is not what we must do but how quickly we must do it”.

How on Earth to proceed in this minefield situation?


It has been argued – notably by Al Gore – that the science of climate change is well researched enough and that we have the solutions available. Therefore in order to succeed in solving this grandest of problems we face the bigger issue of getting anybody to care and do something about it. Whilst this may well be the case, scientific study and technological innovation remain crucially important in analysing the problem of climate change, assessing our approaches to its solution and improving the technologies we apply to this end. We should be wary, however, in placing too much hope in a ‘techno-fix’ geoengineering-type solution appearing to the problem. Partly because the prospects are somewhat lacking, but mainly because of the consequent feeling of being off the hook with respect to emission reduction. Indeed, most geoengineering solutions which have been proposed merely mask the effects of climate change and do not account for vital factors such as ocean acidification.

In addition to direct gains of the science, the fact there exist (some very high-profile) climate change deniers is proof enough that scientific research into climate change can still be justified. There are plenty of people who are still not convinced either that climate change is happening or it is an issue. Yet many suggest we now live in a ‘post-truth’ era, wherein facts count for nothing and emotive statements possess the most power. How is it possible to make a case for action on climate change when such arguments rest mainly on science and often only stir in us emotions of fear and worry?

As was discussed at the Royal Meteorological Society’s February meeting, a major issue for the environmental movement is the lack of consistency of narrative. Previous arguments have left many with the view environmentalists only care about polar bears and (hypothetical) future generations. Peter Wadhams, Arctic scientist and author of the excellent book ‘A Farewell to Ice’, argues what is not being communicated enough is the fact the call for action on climate change is no longer about saving polar bears (not that it ever specifically was). It is about saving the human race. The ‘future generations’ narrative is also unhelpful. Psychologists have long-established that humans (and apes) will always choose a small gain in the short term than a greater gain in the long term –  be it with respect to getting one banana now or five later, or with respect to driving the kids to school in a comfy SUV rather than emitting less in the hope they might have a safer future.

The ‘doomsday is near’ narrative is one which is in vogue in some parts of the scientific community (which should be worrying in itself). Clearly such an approach, seen to be advocated by many ‘whingy environmentalists’, is not the way to proceed, no matter how much truth it may or may not hold. In the face of disparity comes the turn to denial and/or ignorance. Such ignorance is a contributor to the ubiquitous ‘disconnect’ between everyday actions and their environmental impacts. This refers to the disconnect between boiling a kettle and the CO2 emitted to generate the required electricity; between having cute pets and eating emission-heavy meat.

But we should not be too quick to lay blame for CO2 emissions. This has historically been the approach of many environmentalists and the result is highly polarising. It is much more productive to provide solutions than to go around blaming people.


Millions of journalists, bloggers and activists have already written about ‘what we must do now’, with a vast spectrum of ideas. This array is a manifestation of the lack of consistent narrative that I refer to. Here lies the Catch 22 of climate change: climate change is a problem requiring action on scales unseen before, but proposing a solution merely adds to the lack of consistent narrative, weakening the argument for action. Is all hope lost?

Of course not, and it is hope and positivity which provide the answer, as alluded to earlier. Hope lies at the heart of the many pieces written about the path forward. Only by aiming toward a better future can a movement ever be built. But don’t wait for the mass movement to emerge. Start it. Regardless of whether you go on big marches or arrange protests, you are part of the movement if you speak to people about the promise of acting on climate change. You are part of the movement if you do things in your everyday life like taking few flights, cutting down waste or eating less animal products. You are part of the movement if you convince just one more person that it is not good enough for the status quo to continue.

But just in case you do like to go to marches, there is one in London soon: