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Learning to subtract

Published on May 05, 2021

By Steph Wray, Director at Nature Positive, an RSK company

In Mrs Brown’s class, in what would now be called Year 1, nobody got to sit around idly if they finished their work early. If you’d completed today’s task, you would be given a work card or two to keep you occupied until the bell rang for break time. Yellow cards had ten addition-to-twenty sums; blue cards had ten subtractions. I always chose yellow cards. It’s not that I couldn’t subtract, but addition always seemed easier. It seems I’m not alone in that thought.

An article published in Nature this month demonstrated that when we are faced with difficult situations, problems to solve or complex issues to unravel, we can’t possibly consider every solution, so we tend to default to a few simple options. And those options, researchers found, tend to be additive. In experiments, unless participants were specifically asked to look for options involving taking something away, they tended to add things on as their default approach to problem solving. For example, when asked to stabilise a Lego® house with one pillar holding up the roof in one corner, participants would typically add more pillars in the other corners rather than simply remove the one currently in place.

That cognitive bias seems widespread. How often when you review a colleague’s report does it end up shorter? We tend to ‘fix’ it by adding in detail, references or clearer explanation and find it harder to cut unnecessary padding. If we identify a new risk or opportunity at work, we might add to the rules or guidance to ensure it is dealt with, but how often do we go back over our current systems to prune out what is no longer necessary? In our personal life, if we are a little off-colour, we often seek something we can add into our lives to make us feel better – a prescription drug, some vitamins, green juice – rather than think about what we might take away, like alcohol, late nights or stress.

Perhaps there is something inherently less palatable about a loss or maybe we more readily recognise and reward the creativity of additive solutions. When it comes to dealing with the climate and biodiversity challenges that face us, using less can deliver more. Don’t get me wrong, I applaud some of the great technological solutions to climate change. It is certainly a good idea to make the switch to an electric vehicle – so long as you are sure you need a car at all. The shift to renewable-energy generation is an essential part of our journey to net zero, but it isn’t a panacea. The generation process may be carbon free, but the full life cycle is not. We still need to think, not just in terms of how many solar panels and wind turbines we can add in, but how much energy demand we can subtract. In their journeys to net zero, many businesses jump quickly to offsetting – adding in trees – before they have fully explored the more creative subtractions they could make to their energy demands.

In the early nineteenth century, Wordsworth despaired of humanity’s focus on “getting and spending” in his sonnet titled “The World Is Too Much With Us”. Two hundred years later, we are even more focused on adding to what we have, and in the rush for new and creative solutions to sustainability, we sometimes forget the simplest solution: just do less, have less, want less. Time to pick up the blue card and start subtracting.


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Stephanie Wray

Managing Director, Nature Positive

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Steph is an expert in sustainability and environmental, social and governance (ESG), as well as the managing director of RSK company Nature Positive that specialises in supporting companies to make the transition to a net-zero and biodiversity-positive operating model. She is chair of The Mammal Society, a UK-based charity promoting science-backed conservation, and is a past president of the Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management.

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