“The environment – are you doing your bit?”

That was the central slogan of a worthy government marketing campaign, urging personal behaviour change, which ran from 1999 to 2000. The campaign itself was a flop. I have some rather dim memories of tv ads urging me to turn off dripping taps, the message unexplained and contextless, and my main purpose in mentioning are you doing your bit? is to introduce the following important question: what should an environmentally-concerned person actually do? What on earth is my/your/their “bit”?

This turns out to be a pretty vexed question about which there is a great deal to say – certainly too much for a single post, so I shall start today with the preliminary question: what actually is the point of any single individual doing anything at all? The answers I shall give are ones which are rarely stated explicitly.

In order to discuss “green behaviour” it would be useful to give a few examples and a handy way to do that is to give a listing of some of the items in my own portfolio of “green” actions. This is not intended as bragging (look how eco I am!), nor as backhand bragging (see how little I do – so look how normal I am!). I need some sort of list as a starting point and I might as well start with my own situation. So please try to read this in a spirit of neutral curiosity, and wait till you’ve read the whole post before you say either “gah! what an insufferably smug prick” or “lightweight! Doesn’t even have a ground source heat pump or super-insulation”.

Anyway here’s the list (it’s not totally comprehensive), grouped into three categories. The first contains actions that are well-established in my life – energy and transport were my entry-points when I started learning about environmental issues and I decided to leave the complexities of food and other consumption on the sidelines for the time being.

  • I don’t own a car
  • I haven’t flown anywhere since 1996
  • I use public transport less than once a month (on average, over the last fifteen years)
  • I don’t own a fridge
  • I don’t own various other “essential” appliances (smartphone, washing machine, TV)
  • I only light and heat the room I’m occupying (when I’m at home) and I do use jumpers

The second set contains more recent introductions, behaviours which are, for me, more experimental (I can no longer avoid thinking about food), and in general harder to quantify.

  • I get a veg box, in which most of the contents are grown locally,
  • I try to eat everything in said veg box (yes, even the brussels sprouts)
  • I’ve started growing a few veg myself
  • I rarely buy new clothes (though what is “rarely”?)
  • I’m trying to “pre-cycle”. That’s to say, on contemplating the purchase of a new item, I ask myself what will happen to it eventually – if it will go to landfill, should I really buy it?

The final set of items are the more remote actions. You could argue that these are in fact the most important ones because they are, in a broad sense, political and therefore in principal might lead to effects which spread far beyond my immediate sphere of influence. On the other hand you could also say that these are the easiest actions – because the actual physical behaviour is merely that of clicking a keyboard or writing a cheque.

  • I’m a member of the green party
  • I buy my electricity from a “green supplier” (good energy)
  • I give (a small amount of) money to Friends of the Earth
  • I give occasional money to The Centre for Alternative Technology
  • I used to belong to my local cycling campaign (must renew)

So, to return to the question I set out to answer: given that one person’s absolute contribution can only ever be negligible, and anyway, there’s always plenty of people who have a bigger footprint than little ol’ you, what actually is the point of any single individual doing anything at all?

The point is that it buys you the right to talk about sustainability. It shows you actually mean what you say. (People respect the alignment of words and actions, aka “integrity”). It demonstrates that you have thought about limits seriously. You’re not merely making suggestions about how things should be organised in some ideal world that might come to pass if the right policy decisions are made, but that you personally have volunteered to go first, to see what it’s like.

Those last five words lead on to a second reason for taking some personal actions. Changing the way you do something, abandoning an activity or introducing a new one, all amount to small, informal experiments. Have you made things easier or harder than expected? How do other people react? Did anything unexpected happen? How did it feel? You will learn things, and that is (almost) always a good thing.

Other people might learn things too. The third reason for personal behaviour change is that doing things that seem a bit odd to other people, can, in the right circumstances, create mental infrastructure. I first used this term (maybe I even coined it?) in the context of transport:

“Physical infrastructure assists you in going to physical places. Mental infrastructure assists you in thinking particular thoughts. Not using the car is, for many people, literally unthinkable. Anything which makes it thinkable could be described as mental infrastructure”.

And, because we are such deeply social and suggestible creatures, a good way to make things thinkable to other people is to actually do them yourself (“hmmm, well she does x, and she seems otherwise normal …”).

More on the personal behaviour thing to come, though probably not in the next post.

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