I am not comfortable with being called an environmentalist, which is funny considering how many times in a week I am called a hippy treehugger and respond with a grin and a nod. I’ve been thinking about it, and have come to the conclusion that I don’t like the environmentalist label because I associate it with preaching doom and gloom, hugging seals, and the vague idea that if we could somehow make all of humanity disappear, the world would be a better place. As a deliberate optimist, I refuse to accept the first. As to the second, wild animals generally don’t enjoy being hugged. And not only is “disappearing all humans” not a particularly viable idea, but I happen to think that our species has a lot to offer.
I absolutely hate that I feel this way about environmentalism. I’m buying into an unfair stereotype, which puts me among the lowest of the low. But it’s how I feel, even though it bites me in the ass on a daily basis. To a certain extent I think my discomfort has value as an internal compass, giving me hints about kind of environmentalist I do want to be by pointing away from what I don’t like about some aspects of environmental activism. But it’s no wonder that it upset me when one of my close friends criticized me for fear-mongering about the dangers of climate change and over-emotionalizing environmental issues to inspire fear. Now, I’m not sure if 1. he’s not listening, 2. I’m not communicating well enough or 3. he’s just trying to irritate me because he thinks its funny (highly possible).
I’m going to choose #2, because when it comes down to it, you can only control yourself, your own behaviors, and your own life (sometimes just barely). Also, I have everything to gain from striving to communicate more effectively. I don’t want to be a fear-monger and I don’t want to preach the end of the world. It’s not how I want to live my life.
More importantly, it doesn’t seem to be working. Decades of environmental activism based on educating or scaring the public haven’t worked. Most people do not change their behaviors based on knowing more about the environment, no matter how compelling the facts or how terrifying we make the issue seem.
So if large-scale success is not to be found in educating people, then what can we do?
We need to acknowledge that our goals might not be met most effectively by trying to educating, scaring, or dragging people into our causes. And then it’s time to work on changing the defaults, because the majority of people go with the default option no matter what the choice is.
Changing Defaults Works (x3)
What is the best way to increase employee participation in 401k plans? It’s not more education or greater access to information. Believe it or not, even the incentive of a company-matched 401k doesn’t do the trick. People intend to invest, but just never get around to it. What works? Make investment the default option. In one case, changing the default increased program participation from 40% to almost 100%.
The organizers of the Behavior, Energy and Climate Change (BECC) conference performed a little experiment. What happens when you make a vegetarian entrée the default instead of a meat-based dish? 80% of the attendees stayed with the default. And it wasn’t because it was a particularly climate conscious group of people – at the previous meeting of the same organization, 83% chose to eat the default: meat. (You can also ask any good member of a restaurant wait staff. They know that what a person chooses to eat is affected by how their choices are framed.)
Moms understand changing defaults. You want your kids to eat healthier? Put out healthy snacks when they get home from school and put the junk food on the top shelf. Or, better yet, don’t buy junk food at all. Fill your home with books and imaginative toys and put the TV and video games in a closed entertainment center. Make it easier for your kids to make balanced choices by changing the “default settings” of your home environment.
It may be that one of the most potent tools to influence change is easier to access than we think. Stop forcing people to go to classes about the importance of retirement investing and don’t waste your breath preaching the moral superiority of veganism. Just work within the system to change the default options.
And remember that systems exist on every scale. They are global, environmental, governmental, and corporate. But they also persist all the way down to your family’s morning routine.
What are some systemic defaults you might change to encourage sustainability?
How about these? Changing Defaults for Sustainability