A useful roundup of twenty years of research into what makes people want to conserve natural resources can be found here.
As someone who tends to believe that a free-market based solution to our worst environmental problems is highly desirable, I found this article very interesting. The article leaves a pretty big question in its wake however: People either have to get emotionally excited about conservation, or someone has to assign a monetary value to the externalities of pollution (nothing gets heads to turn faster than a nickel dropping on a concrete floor). We all love the carbon tax here, so let me go the other way for a second. How could we create a system that would make people visceral about conservation?
One of the worst systems of financial robbery the average worker experiences is income tax collection. The money gets taken out of your check every month, and if the government takes too much, well, you get it back an average of six months later, sans interest. Sorry, our bad!
People grumble about this, but it has an interesting side effect: you sure do race to fill out that form in January, don't you? Because you're going to get a big fat check once you're done. That's your money, and it always has been, but that fact gets lost in the psychology of collecting free money that you'd long ago written off as lost.
Why don't we treat energy the same way? What if, instead of a monthly per kw/h bill, we paid a per-year fee for energy, like rent, due in advance. And what if that fee were clearly exorbitant? Bear with me.
Instead of motorized meters that nobody ever sees or is able to read, you'd get a very colorful, pleasant digital display that went -inside- your front door; you'd see it every day as you left the house. That meter wouldn't display your energy use. It would calculate and display the amount you were presently on course to get sent back to you, at the end of the year.
I bet people would perk up in a hurry.