When it comes to slowing the snowballing effects of climate change, every voice and every act count. But most of us aren’t going the distance to make our lives greener. According to Professor Ian Christie of the Sustainable Lifestyles Research Group this is not an issue of apathy – far from it – many of us have the best intentions to be more sustainable, the problem is that being willing does not always equate to being able. This blog shares a number of ways to take our disability by the horns and grapple our way to lasting, effective behaviour change. 

1) Don't be sheepish: You have the power to act

Only 2 -3 % of people consistently practise a number of “sustainable” behaviours? If being more sustainable is a good thing for the environment, and at least 47 % of Britons say that they want to do more to help the environment, then why do so few of us practise what we respond in an opinion poll? What is the problem? Taking a hard core approach to sustainable living is really bloody hard, that’s the problem. 

It boils down to context, information on how and why we should live greener lives is not enough, our peers, time constraints, and social norms are the drag against our motivation to change. Personal agency is often quashed by these structural forces which to a degree dictate lifestyle. (Any social science fiend will sniff out the Structuralist, or Practise Theory discourse bubbling away here).

For some steps towards a greener lifestyle can be a threat to identity - think about the symbolic potency of eating meat or a driving a fast car. 

Action 1: Let’s work to reframe green living as affordable, chic, easy and admirable and help the structures to work with us. There are plenty of positive stories out there. Set your sights at one that works for you.

2) Avoid stale mate

So bright young thing holidaying in Cornish yurts and peddling their kids around in Scandinavian trailer bikes has inspired you. You are ready to follow their lead, but then, then you do the maths. “Wait, why should I pay premium on a green lifestyle while the government axes funding for renewables and discount retailers are thriving at the expense of the rainforest? Why should I take the brunt?”  And so we face the dilemma, or ‘trilema', of individuals, businesses and government waiting for the others to make the first move. However it’s not quite so simple. Sustainable consumption at present consists almost entirely of "supply push" rather than "demand pull". Regulatory and legislative obligation, alongside business-to-business peer pressure mean that a growing number of businesses are taking sustainability seriously. 

Action 2: Knowing that your actions mean something in a board room somewhere should help to ease this gridlock. 

3) Take your friends to lighten the load

It takes backbone to commit to change. It takes an iron rod back brace to stay committed when your friends are snapping up last minute holiday deals, never mind government and business (see point 2). Embarking on change with others on the other hand, has the appearance of reducing the risk. We feel safer, supported, a sense of camaraderie. If it works for Weight Watchers, why not elsewhere where all manor of congregational places and organisations can bring conviviality to the cause? An outstanding example is the Pope’s encyclical on the environment, a clarion call to the Catholic Community ahead of the COP21 talks

Action 3: 1) Find a support group where the aspiration to lighten your carbon footprint is mutual. 2) Set yourselves a challenge. 3) be vocal about the hurdles but celebrate your each small triumph. Rome wasn’t built in a day.

4) Men behaving badly

How we spend our leisure time drastically impacts the environment because it usually involves travel. The impact is slightly gendered. Men tend to seek the company of machinery, tools, cars, boats, golf buggies. Even hobbies that are perceivably quaint, low impact and outdoorsy, say, bird watching, can backfire and be to the detriment of their perhaps conservationist mission as a recent flurry of twitchers on Twitter encouraging one another enough to fly abroad for sightings has shown. 

Action 4: Cross your fingers that a paper on the environmental impact of the male midlife crisis is in the pipeline somewhere. Also, find the time to give your leisure time some thought. 

5) Clumsy solutions are a solution

According to Christie “we need clumsy solutions,” i.e. an assortment of solutions that are working towards the same cause. Some of these solutions may be blissfully unaware that they are working for that cause. Getting creative with your clothes, making the most of your food, being green fingered or wanting to save money on your bills can often cut our carbon footprints. - There are multiple incentives for people to change their behaviour that Trojan horse green behaviours too.

The question is, ‘how much does the motivation matter?’ For most of us some awareness of the positive green tracks that we’re making alongside our money saving etc., is necessary so that we can work to follow them to a logical end and avoid 1), the fate of the twitchers and 2) the “Rebound effect” - up next.

Action 5: Clock the change that you’re making.

6) Beware of the rebound

We’ve all been there, you walk to work and reward yourself with a cake run in the park and head to the pub. We’re all strangely aware of this behaviour glitch, formally known as ‘moral’ or ‘self’ licensing. It occurs when the positive feeling from having achieved a small triumph leads us to a celebration that almost immediately cancels, if not completely obliterates, any of the positive progress that we’ve made. It’s the old one step forward, two steps back syndrome that has long been recognised as a huge hurdle for dieters and those trying to save money.

Well, not exactly. The rebound effect does mean that announced emissions savings are often a little exaggerated, for example a household may notice they’ve saved money on an energy efficient car, pump their fist in the air and decide that the time is right for a flying weekend break in Rome. Another decides to become prudent about the food they waste, they then see savings in their weekly shop and decide that they can afford the luxury of keeping the heating on for an hour longer. However the rebound effect can also offer scope for maximising these positive changes.

Action 6: Recognise savings in environmental terms as well as economic, and see the merit in both, and think about it could be channelled forward. 

The logic of carbon offsetting and rewarding the purchase of low energy light bulbs with air miles gets called out here as our rewards very rarely leave us still in the positive. 

Capture the rebound and you’re on to a winner.

In short

  • Positive incentives and collective stories that avoid a value clash and tie in with existing behaviours, alongside supportive infrastructures and peers ease behaviour change.
  • A thorough lifestyle analysis (inclusive of leisure) and awareness of the potential for rebound will help us to stay on course.
  • Consistent messages from Government, Business and everyday institutions might stop us feeling overwhelmed and that our actions are futile.
  • Simple. Full steam ahead.