Changing Habits To Live Sustainably

There is a theory Earth in your hands 11296348_lthat there is only one story: the journey – with a Hero, a Villain, a Direction, and an Outcome. The Hero goes on a quest, but a Villain stands in the way.

Fairy tales

Now, we’re all familiar with fairy tales.

You know, someone (the Hero/Victim, usually a young female) sets out on a journey – a quest – and then gets into trouble (usually the Villain wrongs the Victim).

And then someone else (usually a handsome young man) rescues the Hero/Victim, sometimes with help (Fairy Godmothers, dwarves) – that’s the Direction part of the story.

Then the Hero/Victim and their rescuer usually get married, and they always live happily ever after – that’s the Outcome.

That’s a powerful story.

Our society

It could be argued that the fairy tale is the dominant narrative in our society. For example:

  • We’re struggling with life’s stresses as we try to live well.
  • Sometimes it can seem too much (especially when we’re struggling with really big issues like climate change or other environmental collapse, or corruption).
  • But, we needn’t worry ourselves too much, because someone (or something) stronger, smarter, more powerful than us will rescue us from the trouble we’re in…

It’s the ultimate outsourcing, especially when big cultural change is needed.

And it’s well established in the cultural and political spheres. Examples in recent times include the elections of Gough Whitlam, Kevin Rudd, Barack Obama and Tony Abbott – and technology.

Some have fared better than others in the longer term…but the basic story is still being used.

  • One example is the campaign used by Tony Abbott and the Liberal/National Party Coalition in the lead-up to the last Australian federal election (although that hasn’t been working so for him well since they won the election…).
  • Another example is the belief that technology will save us from catastrophic climate change and other environmental catastrophes.

I would argue that the fairy tale narrative suits incumbent power elites, and the inspirational leadership and crisis opportunities that some people think are necessary for radical cultural transformation.

But there are some problems with the fairy tale approach to change:

  • We never find out how the hero does it (although Shrek does give a less rosy picture ;)), and
  • It doesn’t fundamentally change the culture of Victim as helpless.

Furthermore, in the environment movement and academia there are a lot of:

  • stories about bad things (such as climate change, environmental collapse)
  • stories about Victims, who are helpless.

Often in these stories the Victims are us – and the Villain is us because we caused the problem (climate change).

In these stories, we are both Victim and Villain – and this sets up an internal conflict that can’t be resolved…so we put it in the ‘too hard’ basket.

How do people’s behaviour and thinking change?

Two major models describe how people’s behaviour and thinking change.


They’re based on a powerful psychological loop of thoughts influence feelings which in turn influence actions that influence thoughts, and the net result is your behaviour:

In the first model of change, we need to change our thinking in order to change our behaviour.  This is the basis of cognitive part of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.

  • By changing our thoughts we change our feelings which leads to a change in our actions and our net behaviour..

You may think that this is what is needed for our society to change and become more in tune with our environment, to become more sustainable.

It certainly seems logical that when people get what they think, why they do things, their attitudes ‘right’, then they will behave the ‘right’ way.

This approach takes time, and, although Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.has been demonstrated to be effective for the treatment of a variety of conditions, it is not a cure-all and there are no guarantees that behaviour will change.

There is second model of change, though, in which we take the exact opposite approach. In this model, we change our behaviour in order to change our thinking.

It works because of cognitive dissonance.

That’s because we like our thoughts, feelings and actions to be aligned. When they’re not, we feel uncomfortable.

It’s particularly evident in situations where our actions conflict with the beliefs that are integral to our self-identity.

When we feel cognitive dissonance, we make changes so that our thoughts, feelings and actions become aligned.

So, just as changing our thoughts and feelings can change our actions,

Changing our actions can change our thoughts and feelings.

In fact, ‘there’s growing evidence that action is the most important lever to pull when changing behaviour’.

The evidence says that:

action changes attitude

faster than

attitude changes action

That’s why, in our quest to live more sustainably, it’s important to take action as recommended by trusted sources (like me!), even if you don’t understand why or you’re a bit sceptical about what difference it will make.  It’s one reason why last week (my 100th post! :)) I recommended you to join in the moves to stop investment in fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas.

Because all of your efforts Never doubt that a small group of thorughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it's the only thing that ever has. - Margaret Meaddo make a difference, to our precious world … and to you.

And now is as good a time as any to make a little extra effort.

Many Christians are taking the opportunity presented by Lent to undertake a carbon fast.  This 40 days is a good time to consider what you can do to reduce your carbon footprint as well as undertake some reflection.  (Other faiths focus on fasting during their own special times of the year.)

How do you affect our precious planet – and our future – through your behavioural patterns?

This year is a vital year for the planet to remain habitable. 

Hopefully there will be a ground breaking agreement on the climate in Paris in December.

But the urgency of the climate crisis means that we can’t wait – or rely on agreement of governments who have only limited influence.

We will all need to play our part – as individuals, as communities and as society as a whole – to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero (and preferably negative) as quickly as possible.

And allocating a specific time to focus on changing our actions is a good way to build new habits.

Anglicans in southwest England are focussing their Carbon Fast for Lent on the link between:

  • our use of fresh water, which needs to be pumped, cleaned and stored – and the supply of which is already being dramatically affected by climate change and mining practices,
  • our energy use, and
  • the things we consume.  (Did you know, for example, that it takes 11,000 litres to make a pair of jeans and 140 litres of water to make a single cup of coffee?)

Last year, my carbon fasting focussed on my transport, food and ‘stuff’.

As a result of the actions I took, I formed new habits – particularly regarding transport (although that was somewhat undermined later in the year when the local bus service ‘improvements’ made it much more difficult – and often impossible –  for me to use public transport for all my travel).  Now, driving a car seems odd. 🙂

This year, I am looking at new actions and attitudes that I can take to reduce my environmental footprint.

What will you do for your carbon fast?

Stay tuned to find out what I’m doing.