Over the years, I’ve done some things that I would consider to be difficult: I’ve climbed mountains, run races, taken organic chemistry exams… you know, hard stuff. Right? We’ll, now I’m not so sure. That’s because recently I’ve been working on changing human behavior.
Think I’m joking? Just think about it – you know how hard it is. We’ve all failed miserably with New Year’s resolutions, and we’ve all crashed and burned on day three of the eat-less/run-more plan. Most people can’t even change little habits; so imagine convincing someone to trade their car for a bike or the bus, a few degrees on the thermostat for a sweater, factory farm meat for local veggies, or a mall shopping spree for a trip to the thrift store. Not so easy. But whether you like it or not, sustainability is 99.9% about changing human behavior.
It’s hard to accept sometimes, because part of us thinks that we shouldn’t have to give up stuff. And in a way, we’re right – being comfortable and having a reasonably decent quality of life shouldn’t wreak havoc on the world. But it’s the reality we live in.
And until the day arrives when electricity comes from rainbows and food comes from clouds, we’re going to have to consciously shift our consumption towards lower-impact habits.
Moreover, behavior-shifting has serious potential: U.S. households, which together represent a chunk of energy consumption greater than any county except China, could reduce their energy use by 30% right now, using existing technology (1). Going meatless just one day a week prevents more greenhouse gas emissions than sourcing 100% of your food from local sources (2). IU staff members spend 11,000 hours per year picking litter off the ground (1,500 lbs. every day!) – hours they’d rather spend (and we’d rather have them spend) planting trees, caring for the land, and beautifying campus.
The craziest part of all is this is that the best solutions to these problems often involve neither major shifts in behavior nor reductions in well-being. Unfortunately, when most people think of saving energy (says a study by IU’s own Dr. Shahzeen Attari)(3), they think of turning off lights, turning down the heat, watching less TV, or driving less – basically, slump your shoulders and retreat into your cold, dark house. But not only are these activities unlikely to ever take hold in society, they don’t save that much energy!
The biggest savings come from efficiency upgrades: By making your next car a gas-sipper or your next refrigerator Energy Star-certified, you’ll save way more energy (and money!) than by driving less in your gas guzzler. And sometimes, sustainable behavior changes can boost your well-being – so go enjoy a sunny day and some local music at the Farmer’s Market, walk past the babbling Jordan River on your morning commute, or beautify your campus by saving that candy wrapper for the trash can.
Framing sustainable choices in such ways is critical to actually getting folks to change. Too many campaigns rely on informational pamphlets to “raise awareness”; literature has shown that these just don’t work (4). Modern campaigns are creatively utilizing cultural norms, social marketing, feedback, and incentives to bridge the gap between “I know my actions have negative impacts” and “I’m changing my actions” – these campaigns aim to convince people that they hold the power to create a better world. Two great examples can be found here at IU – check out the Street Smart Party Animals (http://streetsmart.indiana.edu/) and the IU Energy Challenge (http://energychallenge.indiana.edu/).
Bottom line: Sustainability isn’t a spectator sport – it’ll take every last person to create meaningful change. No matter how small, our daily behaviors are powerful, and will echo for generations to come.
Written by Mark Milby, IUOS Waste Audit Intern