By Mike Mercer, Executive Director of the Northwest Earth Institute

This article was originally published as an opinion piece in The Oregonian, June 08, 2010.

It’s bad. It’s really bad.

Whether the number of gallons spewing daily from the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe is 500,000 or 1 million, the impact is and will be horrendous. The Coast Guard estimates that it is collecting 42,000 gallons of oil residue per day. So what isn’t collected is simply pollution left to foul our planet, hurting people, animals and plants.

Given the magnitude of this disaster, we’ve heard a number of leaders and authors proclaim that it might provide the motivation citizens need to make personal lifestyle changes to lessen our dependence on fossil fuels. Certainly large-scale generosity has followed other major disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, the tsunami in Indonesia and the recent earthquake in Haiti. So what can we expect from citizens in response to this massive oil spill?

Not much, actually. From experience and behavior-change research, we know an event like this will have little effect on personal consumption. Unless the damage is perceived as an immediate crisis affecting us within our homes, the vast majority of Americans will be frustrated at the occurrence but will do little in the way of productive action. Furthermore, we only have so much capacity for worry. So unless you live right on the Gulf Coast or make your living from its natural resources, a devastating oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico just doesn’t measure up to unpaid mortgages, college tuition or tutoring for the kids.

That said, people can and will change behaviors given the right conditions. Having engaged over 120,000 people in the process of inspired action, we see people making personal change on behalf of self-interest and the environment on a regular basis. Here is what we need: Follow up our dissatisfaction with the current conditions with images of a positive vision for the future in which we can see ourselves. Citizens then need a range of options for change without feeling dictated to or appearing too sacrificial. Finally, like with most effective behavior-change efforts, a support group of family or peers helps to normalize new behaviors, provides supportive reminders and offers a sense of accountability to one another. Perhaps by focusing on what really matters to Americans — a high quality of life including the basics in food and shelter, strong relationships with others, rewarding experiences and good health, we’ll drastically reduce our consumption of fossil fuels and other dwindling resources.