Being the Change
Living sustainably can serve as quiet persuasion for those who may be turned off by scolding and hypocrisy.
Sitting on an uncomfortable leather chair in the boarding lounge, my heart was beating in my throat. But it wasn’t fear of flying that was bothering me. I was doomscrolling again. Europe was on fire, and another hurricane had hit a tiny island nation.
“What are we playing at?” I groaned to myself, trying (and failing) to fight the urge to keep scrolling through the news cycle. As usual, I shared several of the articles on social media, along with a jolly little note like, “Wake up, people. THE CLIMATE CRISIS IS ALREADY HERE.”
The last boarding call interrupted my furious typing. I shoved my cell phone into the pocket of my cheap jeans and hurried to the gate. I was flying to Spain for the weekend. And even as I condemned the “thoughtless polluters” who had gotten the planet into this mess, it didn’t cross my mind that I was being a hypocrite.
When I touched down in Málaga, my life would change forever. I was about to meet a very special hitchhiker and, after three days of knowing him, I would quit my job and join him on the road. Now, two and a half years later, we are married.
The process of change took time, and it’s worth saying that my husband has never once criticized me for how I was living my life. But as I watched him boycott fast fashion, fast food, and fast travel, my admiration for him grew. He would always take the bus instead of catching a plane, and I caught myself thinking, “Maybe I could do that too.”
We eventually settled down in a tiny, isolated cottage in the Hautes-Pyrénées mountains. To my surprise, exploring the French peaks in secondhand sweaters and worn-out boots isn’t any less joyful than the life I’d known before. Our food comes directly from the people who produce it, and I haven’t bought into fast fashion since I stuffed my cell phone into the pocket of those cheap jeans. We buy honey straight from the local beekeeper, who urges us to note how the golden honey changes with the rhythm of the seasons.
Since I have given up flights, we don’t travel far or often. But my life still feels rich. Considering we spent so many years on the road, I’m surprised by how exciting a cross-country drive to see our family in another region feels now. Back when I hit nightclubs three times a week and took weekend flights to eat paella by the ocean, I probably would have considered my present life hideously boring. But I can genuinely say that I am happier now. Against everything I could have imagined, swimming in the local river is enough for me.
It’s not that I care more about the climate now than I did two years ago. But having someone to model the changes I could make was helpful. And before I knew it, the two of us were in a positive feedback loop where we were constantly inspiring each other to take better care of the planet, and of ourselves.
But here’s what really surprised me. Since I aligned my actions with my values, I have witnessed more of my loved ones giving up flights and opting out of fast lifestyles as well.
Intrigued by what I was seeing, I reached out to some experts in environmental psychology, behavior change, and climate policy. I wanted to know if modeling behavior change was more effective than speaking about it. As always, the truth was more complex than I’d like it to be. But the message was heartening.
Showing vs. Telling
Lorraine Whitmarsh, an environmental scientist at the University of Bath in the United Kingdom, tells me that our behavior inevitably influences our peers, even if they are unable to recognize it as it is happening.
“As a human, we are programmed to emulate those around us and look to our communities for guidance on appropriate behavior,” Whitmarsh tells me. “Just as we learn to speak, we learn how to behave in a constant and subconscious process.” Our personal choices do inevitably influence our peers. But, she reminds me, people may need to be exposed to something several times before they integrate it into their lifestyle.
Ryan Jacobson, a psychology professor at the University of New Mexico, agrees that exposure to certain behavior over time has a cumulative effect on those around us. But he advises caution.
“It’s true that the more familiar something becomes, the more likely you are to approve of it. But only if you aren’t reacting to that exposure,” he says. “If people tell you to change in a judgmental way and make you feel defensive, then the cumulative effect is not as powerful as if you receive messages in a way that makes them possible to digest.”
If people don’t feel threatened, Jacobson says, they are more likely to notice others’ personal choices and subconsciously start to see those choices as acceptable. But that doesn’t work if we come across forcefully. If the messages we send about climate change are too threatening, Jacobson says, people are likely to reach a saturation point and just tune out the messenger altogether.
The Right Way
According to Gregg Sparkman, who studies the psychology of social change at Princeton University, talking about your choices can also inspire behavior change. So long as you do it right.
Even through the computer screen, he notices my discomfort as I realize I had most certainly not been getting it right in recent months. He reassures me that everyone blunders, and offers helpful advice for how we can approach our peers: “You have to meet people where they are at,” he says. “Instead of going in too extreme, you want to model behaviors that are just a few steps ahead of where they are. And be tactful!”
Sparkman explains how important it is to get the timing right: Telling someone they should cut down on flying when they’ve just booked airline tickets for their family is not going to get anyone very far.
“People feel defensive when their self-worth is balanced on what’s under the microscope,” he continues. So if you are going to speak to people about their transportation or dietary choices, you want to do it well in advance of a decision being made.
Sparkman advises against telling your family about the impacts of the beef industry while they’re flipping burgers on the grill. Of course, you can opt not to eat the meat, he adds, but complimenting the brilliant cooking and saying it’s a real shame you’re cutting down on beef right now would land much more effectively than a lecture about industrial feedlots at that point.
Sparkman tells me how important it is to remind people of the good they are already doing. “People are far more receptive to learning their behavior should change when they feel affirmed. It’s the same idea as a compliment-critique sandwich.”
Throughout my conversations with those who study behavioral change, the danger of being seen as a hypocrite came up again and again. Matthew Paterson, an expert in climate policy at the University of Manchester, recalls some of the backlash that ensued when Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth was released in 2006.
“When [An Inconvenient Truth] came out, many people pointed out that [Gore’s] mansion was significantly bigger and less energy-efficient than the home of George Bush,” Paterson says. Gore was also accused of traveling in private jets (which he denied). Following the release of the film and its 2017 follow-up, An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, several right-wing publications released scathing reports about Gore’s apparent hypocrisy. Critics were furious that a wealthy man with a significant carbon footprint was telling ordinary people to reduce their own. This indignation considerably undermined Gore’s message about the urgency of behavior change in the face of the climate crisis.
When it comes to climate policy, it’s important that politicians walk the walk. Paterson explains that when our leaders don’t match their behavior with their words, there are serious consequences. “Countries with low levels of social trust end up performing worse on climate policy and other environment policies,” he says.
If we want to move forward effectively, we need a political culture of transparency and trust. That means modeling the same behavior that we preach, no matter how wealthy we might or might not be.
The experts I spoke to agree that whether you’re a concerned citizen or a presidential candidate, both modeling change and speaking to your peers are important. But Paterson says it’s wrong to place too much emphasis on the individual.
“Economists say individual consumer behavioral change is causally effective to changing the problem,” Paterson explains. “But that is flat-out wrong. The amount of emissions that you actually control is really small. For example, if you rent, you’ll never pay for double-glazed windows.” If we get too caught up trying to change individual behavior, Paterson points out, we take the pressure off the people with the most power to do something.
Sparkman agrees that corporations tend to shift undue blame onto the individual. But he believes that we must keep signaling our changing priorities with our choices all the same.
“In the absence of us changing behavior, there is no reason for politicians or corporations to think that people care,” he says. He also points out that people who make lifestyle changes for the climate are also more likely to vote for candidates who promote stronger climate policies. So even if individuals can only do so much, their shifting attitudes also directly impact their voting behavior and policy outcomes. “It doesn’t have to be individual change versus policy change,” he asserts. “There is no forced choice.”
If we want to inspire change in our communities, both showing and telling count. But we need to approach our peers with gentleness and compassion, and constantly reflect on whether our behavior is in line with the values we associate ourselves with.
On a personal note, this new approach to life has been healing. Instead of feeling burned out by anxiety and angry with the world, I feel far calmer. I know that I am doing everything I can, and somehow that makes whatever the future holds more bearable. Every couple of weeks, I get a text or phone call from a friend who wants advice on how they can live more harmoniously with the Earth. I am careful not to give advice until it’s asked for, but I am always happy to give guidance to people who want it.
Of course, fear and fury are rational and reasonable reactions to the climate crisis, and I think both emotions serve an important role in the healing of planet Earth. But there’s a lot to say for love in this journey too. As I learned when I fell for a scruffy hitchhiker, community matters. Choose your close ones wisely, and the pressure to buy more, travel more, and be more doesn’t seem so important after all.