#6: The Challenge of Change

Hello dear readers!

Nice to see you again! ^-^

In my first post, I asked, “What will it take to get people to save the Earth?” At the root of this question is a quest to change human behaviour.

But first, let’s drop the notion that we don’t like change. The book Switch: How To Change Things When Change Is Hard argues that we do welcome changes of many kinds, such as having children (C. Heath & D. Heath, 2010, p. 4). Here’s another example: travelling.

Why then do we find it so difficult to change our environmentally-damaging actions?

Switch provides some explanation by highlighting three overlooked aspects of change-demanding situations (p. 17-18). Though not specific to the environmental crisis, their relevance can be seen in some survey results I collected this week, and I will introduce them accordingly.

My survey’s first question asked respondents to indicate their environmentally-friendly practices. The results will come in handy soon:

Number of respondents who selected each environmentally-friendly practice.

Next question: “What factors do you think enabled you to adopt such practices?” Convenience was mentioned 14 times in 56 responses. Not much, but that’s only half the picture.

Subsequently, the survey asked what factors respondents thought prevented them from picking up environmentally-friendly practices. The most frequently cited factor? Inconvenience – 29 times in 56 responses. The similar idea of discomfort or a lack of habit was second – 17 times.

Going back to the first question’s results, the numbers make sense. Arguably, abstaining from meat products and managing compost is more inconvenient and easy to give up on, as compared to switching off the lights and fans and reusing paper.

These challenging, non-habitual tasks require more energy and self-control, deterring people from adopting them. Switch (p. 9-12, 17) sums this up with:

“What looks like laziness is often exhaustion.”

The third prevention factor was a lack of knowledge on how to carry them out. A respondent linked this directly with composting: “not widely done so not sure how to start/maintain it.” Switch (p. 15-17) explains this as:

“What looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity.”

Finally, respondents were asked if they thought it was hard for society to save the environment, and why. A majority of them voted “yes” to the first part.

Some explained with generalisations about people’s intrinsic values: “most individuals in society only care about their own benefits/costs.” Others described more realistic, external factors: “Lack of infrastructure that makes a sustainable lifestyle more feasible,” “supermarkets still use a lot of plastic packaging… plastic bags are free of charge.”

Based on what we discussed about climate change deniers, the internal qualities of a person aren’t always at fault. Switch (p. 1-3, 18) highlights this with:

“What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem.”

Most of the book then covers a three-part method for creating change on any level, based on the three quoted points above. It’s targeted at people who don’t have the power to command others and enact laws and policies. How we can apply their method to make progress in our eco-quest will come soon.

Until the next post, thanks for reading!

Tasha (^-^)/

Bonus content!
Read about cookies and radishes to understand the point about “exhaustion”.
Read about movie popcorn buckets to understand the point about “situation problem”.

References

Heath, C., & Heath, D. (2010). Switch: How To Change Things When Change Is Hard. New York, NY: Broadway Books.

2 thoughts on “#6: The Challenge of Change

  1. Hi Tasha!

    Thank you for this insightful post and it answered many questions that I’ve always had on the back of my mind! You mentioned that “what looks like laziness is often exhaustion”. People around me often lament that environmentally-friendly actions are inconvenient so I am curious to know what exactly causes them to feel ‘exhausted’? Could a long day of work hinder people from bringing a reusable container to store their food or searching for suitable second-hand clothes during the weekends?

    Looking forward to your next post!

    Cheers,
    Letitia 🙂

    1. Hi Letitia!

      Happy to know my post has helped you!

      From what I understand of the book’s contents, the “exhaustion” described isn’t really the same as how we typically understand “exhaustion”. Some people don’t switch off their lights and fans, and it’s not because they can barely get themselves out of bed at the end of a tiring day. I think it’s more about how much mental and physical energy a certain action requires, and whether we consciously or subconsciously feel we can afford that. For example, putting on clothes definitely requires less energy than engaging in a class discussion or navigating through a new place.

      To me, the example you gave is quite an accurate description! There are a few aspects to taking away food in a container that make it more tiring than simply accepting the disposable packaging that food stores provide. First, there’s remembering to bring a container with you (often made worse by the dilemma of whether you’re even packing food that day). Secondly, having to find space in your bag to for the container or physically carrying it in your hands (it doesn’t weigh much, but your hands won’t be as free as they used to be, which is admittedly an inconvenience or just a feeling you’re not used to). Thirdly, there’s passing your container to the food vendor and asking them to put your order in it. This may not be hard for some, but for others, it may require mental energy to speak up and behave differently from the social norm (i.e. packing food in disposable containers, in this case). Finally, you have to wash your container after eating. Some of us may be used to it by now, but it probably felt out of place at the start, and that’s when some just give up, right? It’s almost the same with shopping for second-hand items. You mentioned having to “search[ing]”, and if it’s not something you already do every weekend, it probably needs energy.

      It’s interesting to note that this point on “exhaustion” is closely linked to “What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem.” When faced with our friends’ excuses for our friends for not being more environmentally-friendly, there may be times we just want to call them out for being lazy or heartless. But when society is structured in a manner such that recycling is harder than just throwing everything in one bin, or that plastic straws are left out in the open for you to see and grab, it’s arguably easier for people to be less eco-friendly in some aspects. I fall prey to the alluring factor of convenience many times too. Our built environment allows for certain actions to require less energy, and with other energy-sucking things we have to do (assignments, am I right?), not many would want to spend time sorting through trash and washing straws.

      Hope this gives you a clearer picture of the concept! Many thanks for your comment!

      Tasha (^-^)/

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