I am a person who has been attempting to change my lifestyle habits to be as sustainable as possible, trying to reduce my carbon footprint in every way I can, since April 2018. I avoid any product that comes in plastic packaging to the best of my abilities and I maintain a low-waste lifestyle.
I compost all my organic waste so my food waste doesn’t end up in a landfill to emit methane gas (25x more potent than CO2) as well as try to make my decisions for commute or travel on the basis of carbon emissions whenever I’m able. I shifted my diet to focus on plant-based sources, by avoiding meat, eggs, and dairy, in the hopes to further cut down my contribution towards global greenhouse gas emissions from the agriculture industry.
What is a Sustainable lifestyle for me?
Despite how everyone reacts to this, surprisingly my motivation has never been about saving the planet. I mostly do this because I don’t wish to participate in destruction. Sustainable lifestyle to me has always been about “how can I step away from my contribution to the pollution?”. Saving the planet may only be a by-product if this mindset spreads.
For the longest time, I’ve been obsessed about trying to answer why is it so easy for some to change their habits while almost impossible for others? Whenever I meet people, a lot of them make the mistake of constantly trying to “congratulate” me on my “brave initiative” which only serves to make my confusion worse. Is it a brave initiative that I learned how to cook? Is taking the bus instead of Uber really that worthy of congratulations?
Environmental motivated lifestyle
What is it about environmentally motivated lifestyle decisions that make it so special from other lifestyle changes? For the longest time, I thought it’s because environmental lifestyle changes bring consequences outside our lives (it does seem selfless in some ways) and that the global urgency separates it from other regular “good habits”.
Because no matter how casual you try to keep it, you will be put on a pedestal as it is automatically expected that you are here to inspire others. But I’ve always felt this approach may be doing this movement more harm than good.
When sustainable lifestyle changes become a question of morality, judging people by virtue of their choice, you enter a dangerous territory where a good chunk of the general population will now be vilified for staying in their comfort zone. And for most average humans, the default setting is to stay in the comfort zone. Mental well-being experts may also call this “survival mode”, it’s primitive psychology where the brain does everything possible to avoid any information that conflicts with your way of existence. I find that term very ironic.
If we look at the behavioral impact of wanting to stay in this comfort zone, Climate deniers are an extreme example of this where they go out of their way to look for information that can confirm their bias. A large majority look for a way to avoid and ignore the topic so they may never have to face the discomfort of truth. In hindsight both fall on a spectrum of types of deniers.
By this logic, I have most certainly been a denier once myself, so what changed?
Over a period of time, I noticed a pattern among people who first claim they could never make these changes (but eventually have gone on to change their habits in a year or so). Their languages almost always reflect a combination of these features:
The factors I listed are the most common reactions I get from people when I first address the habits that need to change. It is only after months of information, education and being exposed to a living example, people slowly begin to accept that it is possible to change.
Any recovering addict will tell you, the first step to recovery and change, is actually acknowledging we have a problem and feel willing to accept change is possible.
Change must come internally
The above factors made me realize the best approach to communicating environmental lifestyle changes is not by appealing to a person’s morality or their common sense, but by addressing it as an Addiction. I do not use that term very lightly. We must actually understand what an addict behaves and talks like when you confront them.
A major point to be noted is, the intention must always come internally and no person can actually coax someone into change. Conversations can bring a new idea, but a habit can only be developed with serious intention. You can only create an environment around an addict that may help them arrive at that intention organically. Acceptance and giving people space can work wonders.
Imagine how confusing it is for people who want to be part of the solution for climate change, but their brain is also trying to stay in the comfort zone because of their primitive psychological biases? What if there were centers who were offering to help channel this eco-anxiety: by offering to counsel, offering resources, offering mentorship to systematically channel these natural biases for productive results? Imagine how quickly we could help people switch to a sustainable lifestyle with the right communication tools in our language!
“Humans are Hopeless” is a common phrase you will hear when environmentalists are feeling eco-anxious about the state of the world. For anyone reading this article, if you have been making an effort, it is our responsibility to understand this: our insensitivity in the way we speak to people, our judgment, our frustration in the little conversations are potentially contributing to the problem. Is it fair we need to match up to such inhuman levels of patience? probably not.
But we have very little time left to make effective social change. A sustainable lifestyle may come with the responsibility to understand how to create public acceptance for these ideas, at least for now.
(Mridula is an environmentalist documenting her journey of sustainable lifestyle changes and offers resources for others who wish to do the same. She is attempting a zero-waste, plant-based and low carbon lifestyle in response to the climate emergency we are facing today. Follow her journey : @ullisubymridula )
(The views expressed in the article are the author’s own. Let Me Breathe neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)