More than seven out of ten Americans report that they “personally worry about the availability and affordability of energy” and the majority also report being “alarmed” or “concerned” about climate change. On the bright side, there’s plenty of information around to tell you the best changes you can make to live more sustainably.
This is one of a series of stories written by students in the Sustainable Communities class at the University of Minnesota.
Unfortunately, making these changes is another story, as humans are hard-wired to avoid nonessential change. As Christie Manning, environmental studies professor at Macalester College and author of “The Psychology of Sustainable Behavior”, describes it, people develop habits and automatic responses that enable us to “navigate our information-complex environment…and put our attention toward the things that really matter.” So before you begin, here is some helpful information to assist you in making successful, long-lasting changes:
The American way of life is extremely busy and fast paced so most people make choices based on convenience. Living sustainably often requires going out of your way to buy reusable (and remember to use it!), learn how to use public transportation, or make other lifestyle changes.
Some of these changes require sacrifice, and people don’t like to lose things or feel like they are losing them. Sometimes, the “right” decision may end up being more time consuming.
Learn to Relate
When something is happening far away from you (e.g. polar ice caps melting, or a distant rainforest being destroyed) it becomes more difficult to relate. People need to relate to an issue in order to want to make a change. Research the health and safety of your family, for example, and relate that to an issue of sustainability. Relating to issues of sustainability on a more personal level will make it easier for you to make a permanent change.
Don’t Fear the Unknown
Changes usually involve unknowns, and “when faced with all these unknowns and the potential embarrassment or stress associated with the experience, a lot of people choose to simply avoid the new behavior.” Doing new things is often scary, and can make one feel incompetent. There are a few good ways to avoid the fear of the unknown, such as practice a new behavior in a safe setting, or discuss it within your support system.
Meaningful Change Requires Motivation
In order for a behavior change to be long-lasting, there has to be an internal desire to change as well as some sort of external social motivation.
Sometimes, incentive programs can give you the external motivation you need and, from there, once the behavior has begun, an internal motivation is discovered and eventually you begin to define yourself through this action (i.e. “I’m a person who composts.”)
Find A Support System
People want to be accepted by their peers, whether consciously or unconsciously. In order to make changes that others may consider strange (e.g. shopping local/organic, buying secondhand clothes, not owning a car), it’s important to redefine what “normal” is in your life. You can do this by surrounding yourself with people with similar goals. When you’re with other people trying to make lifestyle changes, it becomes “normal” to talk about a new habit –or perhaps, the opposite– the elimination of a habit.
The best way to get from ‘concerned but inactive’ to ‘concerned and involved’ is to find other people in your life that want to make similar changes. Taking the first step together – however big or small – is guaranteed to be more successful than a solo journey.
For more information or to find a support system, try checking out local resources:
MN Energy Challenge has lots of information on how to cut down on CO2 emissions and save money in your home; as well as opportunities to start or join teams to maximize your impact.
The Clean Energy Resource Teams (CERTs) connect you and your community members with resources to identify and implement energy efficiency and renewable energy projects.
ENERGY STAR is a joint program of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy helping us all save money and protect the environment through energy efficient products and practices.