Holly Hughes overcomes environmental lockdown lethargy and what’s-the-point syndrome to find that setting a good example is the hardest but most rewarding part when working towards environmental change …
I used to be the person who, if they forgot their KeepCup, would rather forego a coffee than add to the pyre of disposable cartons. I used to feel real and debilitating shame if I bought a vegetable that came in any form of packaging and underwent a crisis of conscience every time I ran out of mascara and was forced to confront the plastic walls of cosmetic aisles.
However, when the pandemic hit and the world ostensibly fell apart, my principles slowly eroded to be replaced by a calcified apathy. I began to doubt the effect of my contributions to climate action – these endeavours that demanded so much of my time and energy and yet seemed to produce so little in the arena of quantifiable change. For the first time in my life, I fell victim to a bad case of what’s-the-point syndrome. I stopped asking baristas if they could accept KeepCups and instead began slurping lattes from plastic lids like it was the early 2000s. What difference did one more cup make when whole continents were continuing unabashed in fossil fuelled-greed?
In the midst of my inertia, I found a lifebuoy in the work of Dutch historian, Rutger Bregman. Using the Four Laws of Social Change, Bregman argued in favour of the often-invisible power of our small “I”, underscoring the pivotal role of individual as well as institutional action in catalysing environmental change. He pulled me from my slump of fatalism and reintroduced me to the importance of personal accountability. So, for anybody else who might be suffering from existential malaise, I offer you these small reminders of why we try even when it feels like we are failing and why our small changes – miniscule and microscopic as they may seem – are always worth it.
First Law of Social Change: Our Behaviour is Contagious
Psychologists also refer to this as the “Three Degrees of Influence”, meaning that our actions influence not only our friends (first degree) but also their friends (second degree) and their friends’ friends (third degree). Take, for example, green energy initiatives. Research has shown that the more visible renewable energy systems are, the more likely people are to adopt them. The launch of Google’s Project Sunroof, a website that shows who has solar panels in any given neighbourhood, proved this. The website map highlighted that solar panels are not distributed randomly across a locale but appear in clusters. If you install solar panels, it’s likely your neighbour will too. This is the first degree of influence. However it is only the beginning. Heightened demand for solar panels leads to greater profits for solar panel companies, which in turn strengthens the likelihood of greener policy making. Suddenly, one individual decision has spawned a solar-panelled neighbourhood and political action.
Second Law of Social Change: Practice What You Preach
In order to create impactful change and influence others, we must live the values we profess. Failing to adhere to the doctrine we preach undermines not only our own efficacy at instigating change but the efficacy of the entire movement. To our opponents, we become an exemplar of duplicity and a reason to continue in unabashed carelessness. To our allies, our hypocrisy merely intensifies their own: if a wealthy film star can justify a private jet then surely I can book a budget holiday? This, Bregman argues, is why Greta Thunberg has become the influential warrior we adulate. Sailing and railroading her way around the world, Greta tangibly practices what she preaches. Her actions are not about spectacle or optics, they are about integrity, authenticity, transparency. That is how you don’t just preach to the congregation, you convert them, one 14-hour train journey at a time.
Third Law of Social Change: Setting a Good Example Radicalises Yourself
In other words, one small behaviour change often initiates a domino effect of perpetual transformation on a much larger scale. For example, becoming a vegetarian was not the end of my interest in ethical and environmentally friendly consumption. In fact, it was only the beginning. The more I read, the clearer it became that I needed to stop eating dairy. It is similar for people weaning off fast fashion. It begins with one despotic brand, before slowly they find themselves boycotting the high street altogether in favour of second-hand stores. I like this idea of self-radicalisation. That, though we often feel our behaviour holds no power or our passion has plateaued, we are consistently influencing and improving ourselves.
Fourth Law of Social Change: Setting the Best Example is the Hardest Part
The aim of this column is to make the idea of sustainability accessible, digestible, doable. And while many of the changes we discuss are exactly that – a slight tweaking here, a small behaviour change there – the bitter truth is, if you are truly committed to radical change, then sacrifice is not only expected, it is essential. If you are not discomfited or inconvenienced in some way, then you are probably not doing enough. As every personal trainer will tell you, anything worth fighting for, should be difficult and involve a hearty measure of sacrifice. Strangely, I find this knowledge encouraging. Because, by this law, discomfort and shame are not things to run from when trying to make a difference. They are not signs of how much we’re failing but rather way markers of success – totems that confirm we are on the right track, keep going. Instead of signalling weakness, the incessant internal conflict, constant guilt and overbearing angst are in fact indicative of progress, of boundaries being pushed and frontiers being crawled towards. Because we can do hard things. Even in a pandemic, even in lethargy.
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