Friday, June 18, 2010

Psychology of Zero Waste

Americans have deeply ingrained psychological barriers to reducing our addiction to oil and coal. Our consumptive habits inhibit our ability to change our lifestyles when it comes to water conservation, eating less junk food and reducing waste.

But why is there such mental resistance and how do we change patterns of thinking and behavior? I stumbled across an excellent article recently by Licensed Clinical Psychologist Michael Stevenson about understanding the psychology of zero waste and helping people to adopt a more sustainable lifestyle by understanding where they're stuck right now.

Here is the article from Southern Sierran -- the local L.A. chapter of Sierra Club:

Surveys indicate that many Americans believe that we need to conserve energy, be less wasteful and take better care of our environment. Yet according to the Statistical Review of World Energy with only 4.5% of the world's population, we use 23.9% of the world's oil. Since we have only 2.4% of the worlds proven oil reserves this is obviously out of balance, wasteful and unsustainable. What accounts for this disconnect between our beliefs about the importance of conserving and safeguarding the environment and our actual behavior?

Psychologists have studied this disparity between favorable environmental attitudes and our actual behavior. Despite knowing about various environmental problems, having some understanding of their causes, knowing what changes are needed and how to make them and being committed to change our behavior, we frequently still do not behave according to our best intentions.

Then how do we help people buy into and adopt a more sustainable lifestyle? First of all we have to understand where many people are stuck right now. According to Eco-psychologist Allen Kanner many humans have come to believe that they are "the crown of creation" and feel that they have a moral justification to master the natural world. In this scenario, nature is stripped of any intrinsic worth, and animals, plants, water and soil are reduced to just raw materials that are used for commercial exploitation.

When you approach people about changing these attitudes and behaviors you can have the best message in the world but the person on the receiving end will always understand it through the prism of their own preconceptions, prejudices and preexisting beliefs. Remember, it's not what you say, it's what people hear. This is called the "Confirmation Bias". Meeting and speaking to people in their language where they live and play at Rotary Clubs, the PTA, church groups and unions about the concept of Zero Waste and what it means to their lives and the lives of their children will always be the most effective method of changing minds.

At the level of the individual, successful behavioral change always starts by becoming more "mindful" of our everyday activities. Most of our behaviors are actually determined not by our conscious intentions and deliberate choices, but by mental processes that operate outside of our conscious awareness. Most of our daily routines are so well rehearsed that we accomplish them automatically without thinking. We brush our teeth in the same way we always have without noticing that the water is running down the drain the entire time. We forget our reusable grocery bag in the trunk of our car and then have to use plastic bags yet again. By becoming more internally aware or mindful of our wasteful automatic behaviors we can learn to make more sustainable adjustments to our behavior. The best way to increase mindfulness of our environmental behaviors is to place prompts that are noticeable and occur simultaneously with the behaviors we are engaged in. There are prompts available to remind you to shut off the lights when you are not in a room and to turn off the water when brushing your teeth or taking a shower at To avoid having to use plastic grocery bags, buy a reusable cloth bag and leave it in the front seat of your car to prompt you to take it into the store when you shop.

We also have to make it easier for people to engage in desired environmental behaviors. According to Drs. Doug McKenzie-Mohr and William Smith successful environ- mental behavior changes are more likely to occur when we reduce "barriers" that impede people from engaging in new more sustainable behaviors. These "barriers" may be internal such as apathy or a fear of change or be external and be too inconvenient, too costly or too time consuming. We also have to overcome the "benefits" people get by continuing in their present more polluting activity. People gravitate to actions that have higher benefits and fewer barriers. People are more likely to use public transportation (a less wasteful behavior) than driv- ing alone in their cars as the cost of operating their car increases and public transportation becomes more convenient. This is already happen- ing with the increase use of CFLs to replace incandescent bulbs.

Humans are strongly influenced by the behavior of others so that social norms can have powerful effects on our behavior by increasing compli- ance and conformity. Of course fashion trends come to mind. When we observe others performing acts of conservation we are more likely to do the same. So when you take your cloth bag to the grocery store you are not only engaging in an individual act of environmental stewardship but more importantly you are modeling a value that others will internalize and then slowly change the way they behave. Getting to a place where waste is no longer an acceptable of part of our lifestyle will require an enormous shift in human attitudes and behavior. The sooner we get started the better.

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