Environmentally-motivated behaviour change: reflections from This Time of Useful Consciousness
On Wednesday 19 July, The Rubbish Trip delivered our presentation at The Dowse Art Museum in Lower Hutt. We did so while the exhibition ‘This Time of Useful Consciousness – Political Ecology Now’ was running. This beautiful, stirring exhibition tackles the thorny issue of climate change and the need for urgent human action to reduce carbon emissions. The title of the exhibition refers to the notion that human society has now entered an era (artist Amy Howden-Chapman selects the dates 2017-2042) in which the extreme danger of climate change is terribly apparent, yet we still have time to act. With this overarching frame, the exhibition presents a series of works that grapple with both the impact of climate change (including moving works by Angela Tiatia and Vea Mafile’o, which deal with rising sea levels in low-lying Pacific nations, such as Tonga and Tuvalu), and the prickly contours of instigating individual behaviour change to avoid environmental catastrophe.
The exhibition resonated with us, first because the global plastic problem has recently been dubbed a threat so considerable it may well be the “new climate change”, and because the sea is a key vector through which both climate change and plastic pollution rear their ugly heads. But secondly, because The Rubbish Trip is really all about inspiring urgently needed changes in individual behaviour for the sake of Papatūānuku. Our talks focus on sharing information about the zero waste lifestyle, which encourages big shifts away from the illusive comforts of consumer-driven ways of being that fuel the growth of ever-larger mounds of waste, clogging up our oceans, our waterways, and the bowels of our Earth.
The way we communicate the necessary behaviour change is especially important. We choose to emphasise our experience that living by zero waste principles has enriched our lives in ways we had never imagined. We are happier, healthier, more resilient, and we have more money and time than we did before. We are clear that consuming less and refusing convenience-based consumer lifestyles does not lead to the doom and gloom many suppose (we have been accused, by a Stuff commenter, of trying to convince people to return to living as if it were the Great Depression…)
Like the works in This Time of Useful Consciousness, we constantly wrest with how we as individuals can avoid being paralysed by the overwhelming scale of environmental problems (an issue that Howden-Chapman’s series of interviews with European climate change experts considers in depth). In many ways, we feel lucky that our advocacy is in the area of waste reduction. There are no two ways about it, climate change is a matter that many people find overwhelming and depressing. Cognitive research suggests that humans struggle to process such negative realities, which far from motivating us to change our behaviour, trigger us to shut down and shut out. It is also clear that we need to feel that we can make a difference before we are willing to make changes to our lifestyle for environmental reasons. Yet in the area of climate change, rightly or wrongly, there is a widespread belief that individual behaviour change to reduce emissions is pointless unless business, industry and governments move first.
We are of the view that individual action is paramount, and that if we accept that human behaviour is causing profound environmental problems, there is no moral case for waiting for industry and government before making changes in our own lives. In many ways, it feels that this message is easier to communicate when it comes to waste, rather than climate change, and perhaps that is because of the tangible nature of waste and waste reduction (as opposed to the more nebulous or ‘airy’ concept of carbon emissions and greenhouse gases).
Undoubtedly, industry and governments have a lot further to go in nudging us towards less wasteful societies, but individuals and households still have a clear role to play. In the Greater Wellington region alone, kerbside/household rubbish makes up a third of what goes to landfill, demonstrating that waste savings can be made in our own homes, and that this adds up. Unlike the reduction of carbon emissions (which can be difficult for individuals to measure even when you know that the changes you are making do make a difference, for example, when you choose to cycle rather than drive), with waste reduction, you can very clearly see your rubbish bag shrinking as the weeks go by. And it’s easy to measure at home; we weighed the amount of waste we sent to landfill over the 2.5 years since we adopted a zero waste philosophy, and it totalled 4.6kg between us. We were able to compare this with the regional average (1 tonne between two people in the same period of time) to see how significant our changes had been.
Because waste is so tangibly connected to our day-to-day lives, reducing it is actually something that people do have a certain degree of control over, and that ability to take control is an important motivator for enduring behaviour change. You don’t need to wait for governments or businesses to do it for you. You can start saying “no” to plastic bags, and “yes” to making your own food, toiletries and cleaning products tomorrow. Sure, industry, business and government actions would make individual change much easier, but there are still many things we can do when these monoliths are slow to act. The control that we get over our own lives when we look to our own resourcefulness to acquire the things we need to survive, rather than rely on corporations to provide these things for us, is both rewarding and encouraging.
At The Rubbish Trip, we are passionate about lifestyle changes that will move us towards both a zero waste and a carbon zero society. Whether waste reduction seems more or less attractive an endeavour than reducing our personal carbon emissions, the reality is that both are important. We need to be honest with ourselves about our cognitive limitations when it comes to taking responsibility for environmental issues, and then seek to surmount them. This involves overcoming the need to ‘feel’ like we are making a difference before we will take an important action, and resisting the constant need for a positive spin to be put on urgent and deeply concerning environmental problems to stop us from shutting off. There’s only so much that environmental campaigners, researchers and scientists can do to tell a feel good story about climate change or plastic pollution before facts start to get distorted or truths simply not told. Facing up to our current dire situation is not about wallowing in despair, but about activating invigorated and practical responses to the wake-up alarms the planet is sending us.
All these thoughts were triggered by the call that This Time of Useful Consciousness makes for us to start re-evaluating our lifestyles in order to avoid catastrophe. The exhibition ends tomorrow (Sunday 30 July). If you miss it, you can still check out the artists online – including the project The Distance Plan, which is food for thought on the issues of political ecology and the murky terrain of lifestyle change. In the meantime, The Rubbish Trip will continue our tour, with renewed vigour, to share with people our practical tips for household waste reduction and the kaupapa of environmentally-motivated lifestyle changes, in an era when we still have time to act.