This summer has been so oppressively hot and dry that I can’t help thinking about climate change. Why is it so hard to overcome my eco inertia and make more environmental choices?
We grapple with this dilemma as much as anyone: We know the problem, and that our personal choices can either make it worse or better. Yet when confronted by another article about melting ice caps, our eyes glaze over.
On occasion, we connect the dots between our actions and a drought we witnessed in Africa or a hurricane in the Caribbean, and we recommit to changing our ways.
But all of our resolve crumbles when we’re running late: We take the car instead of our bikes, or grab and go at the grocery store instead of the local farmers’ market.
We keep hoping someone will invent an ingenious solution to the whole mess before crunch time.
And besides, we both installed new eco light bulbs at home last year, so at least we’ve done something.
But this week’s question got us thinking, and as with any attempt to break a habit (or many), the first step is to admit you have a problem, and to seek help.
We asked the advice of Robert Gifford, editor of the Journal of Environmental Psychology and founding director of the University of Victoria’s program in the Human Dimensions of Climate Change.
Dr. Gifford’s latest research has identified 27 “dragons of inaction,” the psychological barriers that hold us back from making better environmental choices. They include, among others, numbness (skipping over news stories), behavioural momentum (choosing convenience over the bike and the market), discounting (it’s not happening here or now), technosalvation (we’ll invent our way out of it) and tokenism (eco bulbs, check!).
The educational approach to encouraging lifestyle changes – “All we need to do is inform people” – is not sufficient, argues Dr. Gifford: “Different dragons affect different folks for different behaviours. Which action is easiest depends on each person’s circumstances.”
Understanding which dragons are holding you back could be the key to unlocking your inner eco action hero, says Dr. Gifford.
So we tried it ourselves, and realized that both of us tend to act more urgently on issues with visible, immediate effects and solutions.
For instance, water-borne illness devastates communities in Kenya, so we raise funds to provide access to clean water.
But in the case of climate change, scientists predict the worst impacts to be decades away — so it’s hard to see how planting a tree in Timmins can stop Bangladesh from slipping under water.
However, if we shift our thinking and recognize that we’ll still (we hope) be around 40 years from now – when, some say, close to a third of today’s plant and animal species may be extinct, and global supplies of vegetables, fruit and chocolate (even maple syrup!) will be at risk – we take the issue more seriously.
Understanding that our children and grandchildren will have to deal with the consequences of choices we make today is pretty good motivation for us, a new father and a new uncle, to live our lives as if there’s a long term. So, now we’re more determined than ever to be mindful of how each choice we make impacts our climate. (Maybe we’ll tune up our bikes and look up the next farmers’ market.)
Big or small, every action counts. “Each one of us, citizen or CEO, makes choices every day, and these choices matter in the aggregate,” argues Dr. Gifford.
He also argues that social comparison – the adult version of peer pressure – can be a powerful force for inertia or for action. So, once you identify what’s feeding your eco inertia, seek out friends who are making the changes you want to make, and harness your dragons together for a better world.