How to make sustainability relevant to people who drive Toyotas, listen to the Edge and worry about their mortgage.

A typical greeny out saving the world?

A lot of people see us greeniesas a little out of touch with reality, anti-progress, overly PC and even a little weak and effeminate. Others are somewhat less charitable, believing that the green movement is a direct attack on their lifestyle and that climate change is a scam. None of which would really matter if sustainability wasn’t perceived as being a green issue, and therefore tarred with the same brush so the most important issue facing humanity is, at best, not being taken particularly seriously.

The only thing is, most people are actually a lot greener than anyone (including themselves) realises, so there’s no reason that sustainability shouldn’t take off.

First though, we need to make sustainability personal and relevant

Right now, like most people in NZ, I have a larder full of food, a garden that is on the way to being full of food and the last time I filled my bikewith gas it cost around $30.00 which will take me over 250 km. Life is pretty good, but I keep getting told that I have to give up things like driving cars (especially the kind of cars I like) because if I don’t, the polar bears will die and people in remote pacific islands will be forced off their islands. Like most people I don’t really want polar bears to become extinct and I reckon it sucks that those poor buggers on Kiribati have to pack up and move. The trouble is that, like most people, polar bear population and where people from Kiribati end up living falls well behind paying bills, getting to work on time and even mowing the lawns on my priority list. The latest phone bill and the length of my lawn are personal and in my face, whereas I don’t even know where Kiribati is and can’t imagine I will ever see a polar bear in the wild.

Unlike most people I know that the problems facing polar bears and families on remote islands are actually warning signs, and they are warning me that it won’t be long before it’ll be my species that is unable to find food or shelter and it will be you and I desperately escaping to higher ground. Sustainability is vitally important to me because it’s personal, and that’s the reason I live the way I do. We need to reframe the message so people realise that time is no longer on our side and that all of our lifestyles will be hit hard if we don’t get our act together and change the way we live. Which should be easy because…

Living sustainably is not just enjoyable; it’s more enjoyable than living unsustainably.

A big problem with the message about living sustainably is that it is often framed as being a noble sacrifice for the greater good and that “it’s not easy being green”, all of which is bollocks.

Often people will say that they have been happier in times when they had less money, and a big part of that is that was when they couldn’t afford to buy the crap the advertisers sell them. I remember a few years ago I was at the Warehouse buying a pair of socks, and when I looked at my fellow bargain hunters I saw that almost everyone looked tired and drained as pushed their trolleys filled with cheap rubbish that they didn’t need and (probably) couldn’t afford. The same scene gets played out every day, and not just in the Warehouse. The same desire drives people to buy a new Golf because it can park itself, or wait in eager anticipation for the new iPhone 5 which is rumoured to be over 1mm thinner!

Will anyone really be happier because they own more plastic tat, their car can park itself or their phone is a different shape? Or would they be happier if they didn’t need to work as hard to pay off that car? Or if they didn’t feel slightly inadequate because they were the only person at the cafe table with last year’s iPhone?

I have a vegetable garden that dominates our diets for much of the year. Forget about my carbon footprint, I save a lot of money and I have a lot of fun digging around in the dirt creating food that tastes fantastic. And then you have cycling – it’s not only quicker than using a car for most urban journeys, parking is never a problem, it saves buckets of cash that can be spent on more interesting stuff than petrol and it even gets you fit! Far too often sustainable behaviour is described in terms of “giving things up”, so why not change the language to adopting new and better ways to do things. Did we talk about the pain of losing our beloved snail mail when email took over? Did any of us resent replacing the Encyclopaedia Britannica with Wikipedia?

Even if adopting a sustainable way of living wasn’t so damn enjoyable (to the point of hedonistic) most people’s hearts are in the right place which means they actually want to “do the right thing”.

Most people don’t throw rubbish out their car windows, will tell the shop assistant when they get too much change and don’t like it when other people get a raw deal. The earthquake in Christchurch proved that, with people all over New Zealand donating money, sending supplies and making genuine sacrifices for us. I will never forget my sister in Tauranga telling me that Grindz Cafe on First Ave had donated a whole day’s takings to us. Acting sustainably is the same thing, only on an even bigger scale, so most people would actually be quite happy to do the right thing, but they don’t which means it’s only us noble few that stand between humanity (and polar bears) and the end of life as we know it (SFX – the Dam busters theme).

And that’s a problem. Much as I like thinking of myself as one of the heroic few, sustainability will only ever be a reality if pretty much everyone gets on board. One of the reasons ordinary people going about their daily lives don’t go green is because it isn’t seen as ordinary and normal. A lot of greenies don’t see themselves as being the same as Garth watching the footy down at the pub, or Kylie driving her kids to school in a new SUV. Although Garth and Mary usually recycle, and if you asked them they would tell you that it sucks what’s happening to the polar bears, they don’t see themselves as greenies (Garth especially) because greenies are, well, just different and not like them.   As a result they aren’t all that interested in sustainability and switch off when it’s being discussed because they can’t see how it has that much relevance to their or their friend’s lives.

Sustainability is impossible without Garth and Mary, but they’re decent people so getting them on board will be easy as long as we do a few simple things:

  1. Make sustainability personal and tangible. It’s not just about the Amazon rainforests or even the Hector’s dolphin – it’s about our ability to take the kids to the beach, have clean water to drink and be able to afford our mortgages.
  2. Make sustainable behaviour attractive. Forget about giving up things that we enjoy, living sustainably is about getting even more pleasure, only in different and better ways.
  3. People are nice. Sustainable behaviour is behaving like a decent human being and having some basic morals.
  4. Make sustainability ordinary. It has to be as normal as washing one’s hands before a meal or not smoking inside, that way when people don’t do the right thing it stands out and Monique says they’re dumb.

So that’s all we need to do – stop making sustainability about saving the whales, bin the whole noble sacrifice malarkey and instead make it mainstream and even a bit blokey, so if you’re not doing it you look a bit like Kath and Kel Day-Knight – out of step with the rest of the world.

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