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Getting to Sustainability: I Have Seen the Enemy, and He is Us

By Nick

This piece was originally published on BrightSpot Social

I recently wrote about why consumer behavior matters in response to Annie Leonard’s piece on why good citizens are more important than good consumers. Without rehashing that piece, I argued that good consumers help change our consumption culture and invest in sustainability, and that’s exactly what we need to get to a sustainable society.

To be frank, despite all of our “eco-consciousness,” we’re actually not doing very well in our pursuit of sustainability. I argue that this is, in large part, due to our reluctance – and in most cases, near inability – to consume less, even while we succeed in efficiency by making each thing we consume less damaging. A good case for this is California, where legislation has regularly increased our energy efficiency requirements for appliances. They have been very successful, but energy usage per capita has remained approximately constant – it hasn’t decreased – for the last few decades (compared with rapid growth in the rest of the U.S.). The laws met their purpose, but we have filled in our savings with increased usage in other areas. That is, we increased consumption, even as we reduced the damage of consumption. This savings is still quite good compared to where we could be, but we need to reduce our impact much further if we hope to meet our social and environmental goals.

It’s not all doom and gloom though, because are we not the best people to reduce our own impacts? A poignant comic strip said over four decades ago now, “we have met the enemy, and he is us.” At least we understand our enemy. But anyone who has ever tried to go on a diet knows that changing your behavior isn’t as simple as flipping a switch. Your own body chemistry is working against you in the form of your habits and expectations. In most of our cases, we have to undo an entire life’s worth of training– both subconscious and explicit – that consumption is the key to our happiness (Hint: It’s not).

We have a clear moral imperative to act – and not wait for someone else to act on our behalf using technology or policy, even if those will help. So the next step is how. The Internet has a dearth of information on what to do, and you have now heard why – as if you hadn’t before. But “how” is frequently lacking, in part because you will be most successful if you find the best method for you. The good news is that groups such as the Center for a New American Dream and my own Environmental Consumer are working on helping us all to kick our consumption habits. Still, most of us don’t know how to change our own behavior, so I’ll list off a few strategies I use and that underlay much of the work I do.  Take these with a grain of salt, because I can’t say that they will work for you, but they have helped many people I know to be more responsible consumers.

Set Goals
Have you ever participated in a weight loss program? Played a videogame with “achievements?” Been involved in a company’s reward points program? The strategy of setting a goal – even an artificial one – is used all the time to get you to consume, so why not to help you avoid consumption? Set an ambitious, but attainable goal. You don’t have to meet it, but simply trying to each time an opportunity arises will spur you toward better decisions in the long run and help you to form new habits of consumption.

Spend your Money with Companies you Support
When you do make purchases, spending money with businesses that work hard to operate in a socially and environmentally responsible manner is a clear winning strategy. You have probably heard the phrase “vote with your dollars,” and you have the opportunity to do so every day. Buying from companies like this matters because it’s the only way that you can make your money keep working for you – instead of against you – once it leaves your hands, and that is pretty powerful. (And, as a side note, if you tell the company you stopped buying from that they lost business, the impact is amplified)

For now, I will stop there because I want to make these three things clear and memorable:

  1. We, as individuals, must reduce our consumption if we want to reach sustainability
  2. Setting goals works, and I encourage you to start one
  3. Buying from responsible companies helps you reduce your impact even when you consume

So, I’m encouraging you to challenge yourself and set a goal. Right now. Not later. Now. If you need inspiration, the ideas have been well-covered. If you need some help figuring out what is best for you, ask Environmental Consumer’s helpdesk and we will get you set up. My goal is that this month I’m going to bike, walk, or take public transit for all places I go under ten miles – and some further places. What’s yours? Please share in the comments!

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