Posts Tagged ‘cognitive psychology’

More potent than the most virulent tirades from flaming climate deniers, are the silent thoughts that circle in our minds and negate even our greenest intentions. It takes trained attention to catch these thoughts. Right now, for instance, I am about to go grocery shopping at Whole Foods. Only a few miles away. No objective reasons for why I can’t bike. Still, my mind is already made up:

I am going to drive. Don’t ask me to be good. Don’t ask me to be green. I don’t feel up to it. Need to be pampered. Out of sight, out of mind. Plus I am angry about stuff. Can’t deal with all that other shit. I fall back on what’s familiar, what I know best. Can’t, don’t want to make the extra effort. Right now, it is just me, me. Could care less about the planet, and what’s going to happen in ten, even a few years from now. It is too much work. I want simple. No room for other considerations. 

See what I mean?

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Just a moment. I grabbed it, quick, before it slipped away. Halfway between the kitchen and my office. Empty space. Vertigo. I could go shopping, get some action in. Quick remedy for transient un-ease. No. It doesn’t work any more. A vision of sisters moving amidst racks of clothes. And my heart sinks. The absence of substance is not that bad. After all.
Do you have such moments?

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This morning, I joined the crowd of concerned environmentalists on DotEarth, and lamented with them on the outcome of the Bali talks. And declared,

Talk is nice. My concern is what can I do as a citizen, to become a part of the solution. Here are my resolutions:

1) to continue to explore the psychology of green in my blog
2) to try my best to green my life
3) to join a green business venture, hopefully in the next few weeks
4) to act as a responsible citizen and make sure the right person gets elected as our next President
5) to explore ways that I can spur green initiatives in my immediate community
6) to channel the anger, frustration, I feel as a result of these talks, productively, into positive actions.

What are you all choosing to do on a personal, concrete level?

Later in the day, I decided to go to the gym with Prad. Charlotte saw me grab my car keys. “You are not taking your bike?” Prad offered to ride with me if I wanted to. No, it was too cold, and I just wanted to get to the gym, fast. We drove.

What happened? Why such a discordance between what I know to be the right action, and what I end up doing? I have become obsessed with understanding what goes on in my brain during those split seconds, when I decide to not follow my green conscience. Several times before, I have tried to revisit similar moments, to grasp the thoughts, the feelings, that trigger such behavior. I am convinced, if I can reach down far enough, I will retrieve valuable insights, that will help get to the roots of the behavior. If I can nail down the cause, it may be easier to figure out some solutions.

Seven Reasons Why It’s Hard to Be Human and Green

Back to the gym moment. I was tired with a slight cold. The idea of going out in the damp weather, and of spending a half hour biking, did not feel good. Compared with the comfort of our warm car, the bike did not come close. In that moment, all I could think of was, cold versus warm, hard work versus easy ride. I did not feel so good. I wanted warm and comfort. A curtain came down between my green conscience, my morning discourse, and the reality of my present physical need.

I surprised myself with the strength of my response to Charlotte and Prad. ‘No way, I am riding my bike. I am tired and it’s cold.’ Never mind that I was going to the gym to exercise. My heart was set on swimming, not biking. Still, if I had enough energy to swim, I probably could have biked. It is just that I was thinking exercise equal gym. To exercise I needed to go to the gym. Although I was tired, I am very disciplined about exercising every day, and I was willing to make that effort. In my mind, going to the gym, was in the transportation category, not the exercise file. Transportation meant, I was going to naturally choose the option that was most efficient time wise, and comfortable.

Now, why was I willing to make the effort to exercise (swim) although I was not feeling so good, but not to bike instead of driving? The answer is, I consider exercise a direct personal benefit to my health and my well being. Biking instead of driving, because of environmental concerns, does not affect me directly. (that’s assuming I maintain earlier ‘logic’ of biking not as an exercise form, but as mode of transportation). Its benefit gets diluted both in time and space. The big pot problem again. When I exercise, I feel an immediate personal benefit. When I consider acting from my green conscience, it falls in the higher category of ‘I and many other enlightened people know it’s the right thing to do, but it is not part yet of the commonly accepted set of ethical behaviors’. Where I get in trouble is with that latter part. The lack of collective consciousness in the green category, and the resulting lack of environmental laws and best practices, give me license to err.

Am I that selfish of a person that I never do anything for the greater good? Actually, there are many instances when I can act selflessly. My maternal instinct makes sure I always put my children’s interests before my own. I find great pleasure in mentoring my Little Sister. For seven years, I spent my time helping people as a profession. In the green category even, I now make sure that I bring my recyclable bags to the grocery store. I try not to flush. I have diminished my shopping significantly. I only heat the house very selectively. I always turn off the lights. I take the train whenever I go to the city. . . My laziness with biking is one of the last fortresses of my unconscious, not so green self, and a window into the ways most of the civilized world behaves. Here is what I saw:

  1. We are creatures of the flesh. Trapped in our physical body, and at the mercy of our basic needs for physical comfort, pleasure, and immediate gratification. Without the external reinforcement from state or spiritual laws, these primal needs take precedence over our conscience.
  2. We are lemmings. We look around and tend to emulate others’ behaviors.
  3. We are self-centered. Our priorities start with getting our personal needs met first. Needs for security, personal health, financial security, comfort, safety, education, etc. Environmental concerns are at the bottom of the pile.
  4. We are products of our culture. In America that means capitalism, money, greed, consumerism, extremes, convenience, industrialization, technology, cars, invincibility, man over nature.
  5. We are creatures of habits. Our thoughts and behaviors are set in certain ways. To unset them requires tremendous energy and outside forces.
  6. We are inherently lazy. Given the choice, we will most often pick the easiest, most convenient alternative.
  7. We are not rational beings. The way we derive our thoughts is often circuitous, and leads to behaviors that fly in the face of reason.

Next, is how can we take into account these seven characteristics of human nature, and formulate winning behavioral change strategies for a greener planet. Plenty of material for another article. . .

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Day 28 of Daily Footprint Project. Cold, and rainy. I had to go out twice, once to a doctor’s appointment, and then to the pool. Both outings in the five miles range, a perfect ‘bike it’ distance. ‘Pervenche‘ was waiting, and I had made such a big deal of looking for the perfect bike and finding it, and being ready to ditch my car, that I felt obligated to come through.

What happened next is less glorious. I was busy blogging, making comments on the Huffington Post. Lots of posts on global warming today, and I had to make my opinion heard. Came 12. 30, the time when I could still have made it to the doctor on my bike, and I had to decide. To bike or to drive. The computer screen was luring me with one more post to comment on. Ten minutes more, that’s all I needed. What the heck! Forget my green conscience, forget all the promises to myself, and to my readers. The temptation of convenience, of minutes shaved away for more blogging about environmental concerns, was too great. The truth is I love my car.

This is the kind of stuff that I would push back in the recess of my mind, and my heart, if I was not committed to telling the truth, all of it. Am I embarrassed? Yes. The irony of the situation does not escape me. Today, I was a Green Hypocrite. I could dwell in self-loathing. More interesting, though, is to get down to the root of my behavior, to understand as I have tried in the past, what causes the split between my rather high awareness, and those moments when I choose to not act accordingly. This is where it is important to pay attention to thoughts, no matter how seemingly mundane, for they hold clues to the intrinsic human problem at the root of climate change. Going back to that 12.30 moment, when I had to decide, to bike or to drive, here is what I found:

Laziness. Priorities. A drop in the invisible cloud of CO2. It won’t make a difference. I am having so much fun, don’t want to be bothered. Habit. Comfort. Convenience. How bad is it anyway, to drive such short distance once or twice a day? It can’t hurt that much. Effort, I don’t want to make the effort. The weather wasn’t even that nice. My time is precious. The extra time spent biking, I can use doing other ‘more productive’, more important things, such as working on green projects. Nothing is going to happen if I drive instead of biking. No consequences. I don’t have the discipline. What’s in it for me? The car, so fast, such a proven entity. I can zip in and out of places. I know, I should bike. But it’s such a small thing. Today, I can ‘sin’, only once, maybe twice. I will get it right some other time. Ah! the immediate pleasure of blogging away, versus the higher satisfaction of a clean conscience. Big, instant pleasure over small dent in my green conscience. Pleasure wins. I can’t even see that CO2 anyway. It’s invisible. A crime without the evidence to prove it. Everybody else is driving anyway, or almost everyone. I am too wrapped up into the moment. The present supersedes any hypothetical concerns about the consequence of my small actions for the whole planet, myself included. There are two issues. The lack of immediate consequence for my action. And the dilution of personal responsibility, the big pot problem.

There is a lot to be learned from that thought soup – I stole the words from Nadine – Lots of insights, not just about myself, but more importantly, about the human condition in relationship to climate change. What are the personal obstacles to change? How can these can be best addressed? I just followed a fascinating exchange on DotEarth, between Andrew Revkin, and his readers, on that same topic yesterday. The discussion did not suffer from a lack of opinions . . . and intellectual ramblings. What is missing most in many of the climate change conversations, is that connection to the psychological reality of the individual. That reality affects individuals in their personal lifestyle choices, their professional choices as influencers, deciders, and politicians. It is probably the single most important factor, besides technology, with the potential to critically alter the course of climate change.


Daily Footprint Project
Daily Log
Day #28

flush toilet 3
wash face 2
brush teeth 2
wash hands 5
shower at pool 2
wash fruit
rinse dishes
wash vegetables
wash rice

electric toothbrush 4’
microwave tea 2’
microwave milk 2’
laptop on all  day
microwave oatmeal 4’
bake chicken in oven 30’
stir fry zucchinis 4’
microwave rice 30’

organic milk
organic persimmons 2
organic chocolate
breakfast pastries from Whole Foods
baked organic chicken
organic brown rice
organic zucchinis
organic salad

toilet paper
3 newspaper plastic wrappers
chicken packaging
zucchini package
salad plastic 

2 papers

drive to appointment (stop by Trader Joe’s on way back) 5 miles
drive to pool 6 miles

Non food shopping

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At a dinner last night, the young woman sitting next to me, a well intentioned green wannabe, told me how hard it is to keep track of all her daily actions. ‘There is so much to pay attention to. In the end, I usually give up.‘ This morning, again, I had a similar conversation with my friend Anne. She too, is convinced of the necessity of changing her lifestyle. There are two things she is already doing, that she feels good about. She drives a small car and she turns off the faucet when she brushes her teeth. Other than that, where to start? She is at a loss.

In both cases, my friends expressed a feeling of being overwhelmed by the magnitude of the changes expected of them, as implied by the green press. As if to prove their point, I just found ‘A Consumer’s Guide to Going Green‘, a very well researched article in the Wall Street Journal this week, that left me, like my two friends, in a state of ‘Wow! You mean I have to do all this.‘ Too much thrown at me at once. I read it, and saved it for reference, for the time when I will summon the courage to go green all the way. The ‘Green Living‘ folder on my desktop has already 17 such reference articles, not including all the green lists I have written for this blog. Lists are mostly good for the list maker, I realize. They give a sense of mastery, and order. The illusion that things are taken care of. I have done my job, I have told you what to do. Now whether you do it or not, becomes your problem.

Anne is a smart woman. She can handle complexity very well, in her professional life. When it comes to green, however, she wants simplicity. ‘If I were to do only one thing, what would it be?’ I was tempted to answer her question on the spot. Instead, I went home, and started thinking about her request. Part of my problem as a green communicator, is I don’t want to choose. Insulating the house, lowering the thermostat, buying energy efficient appliances, using CFLs bulbs, buying less, driving less, flying less, using less water, using the washer and dryer less, getting a low gas mileage car, skipping red meat, etc. Everything is important, isn’t it?

There are three issues. First, is identifying priorities in terms of the biggest individual contributors to greenhouse gases emissions. Second, is figuring out from that first list, what is the one thing most likely to engage the green wannabe into his or her life greening process. Third, is how to support the person in that process. I will try to address all three questions in a series of subsequent posts.

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Please share this video with all your skeptic friends. And thanks to Richard Reiss, over at Artist As Citizen, for sending it my way.

As I mention, in my response to Richard’s earlier comment, this video reminds me of Pascal’s Wager. I have always felt a kinship with Pascal’s thinking. The man is practical. We need that kind of no nonsense thinking to bring the climate change skeptics along.

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