Give a gift to a flightless friend!

Have you ever wondered why eco-friendly behaviour can sometimes feel isolating? How do you encourage eco-friendly behaviour across your peer-group? And what about your own motivation? I argue that it is all about the right dosage of encouragement and positive feedback.

Say you decided to cut back on your meat consumption, or go vegetarian, to be more in line with your values. Now, this might be a great thing to do, because you didn’t have to feel guilty for supporting cruel rearing conditions in the meat production any longer and in the same time your food consumption became much more climate friendly (learn more about how food and climate change are linked and discover your foodprint).
Against the odds of having a big impact, accepting that a small-scale change in your individual behaviour can be an important contribution to “changing the world”. Only problem, while you take that eco-step, you inadvertently make one step away, from what would be considered “normal”. Now you might be in the uncomfortable position of feeling the pressure of the “main stream” flowing around you and causing friction. If you are lucky, you live in a very supportive family, you have open-minded friends and colleagues, but how do you cope if that is not the case and you get constantly dragged into discussions about your “odd” behaviour? This is where I see the room for active encouragement to promote eco-friendly behaviour. What do I mean by that?

Shortly after I wrote my story on why I quit flying, I came across an email saying: “Give a gift to a flightless friend!”. It made me laugh, because it was actually a crowd-funding campaign for flightless birds by an environmental NGO, but it could so well be read as an appeal to encourage your friends who do not fly, namely your “flightless” friends.
By now you must have noticed, that English is not my native language, but I had to write something along these lines. I mean the topic of encouraging people within your peer group to reduce flying and do other eco-friendly stuff.

icecream
Give an ice-cream to a flightless friend! Image by Niels Jobstvogt, CC BY-NC 4.0

Can you think of people among your friends, family, or colleagues, who fight for “a just cause”, who always seem to know how to do “the right thing”? Think about it for a moment! What is it that you like about what they are doing? Do you tend to tell them that? I know for sure, that I could tell people around me much more often, what I like about what they are doing.
In general, I would like to see a much more open attitude of encouragement, when it comes to sustainable living choices and eco-friendly behaviour. Where people feel supported for giving up eating meat, because they detest the cruel conditions within the animal production system, giving up flying or their car, to lessen their impact on global warming, etc. Such behaviour can often be associated with giving up something really important and running against the main stream, both which can drain energy from even the most enthusiastic person.

Let me take one step back, how often has it happened to you that a person you know, told you about her/his decision to start cycling to work, stop eating meat, going plastic-free, or whatever other eco-friendly behaviour that you could think of? So, in that instance, did it ever occur to you that you felt being confronted by this person with your own not-so-eco-friendly habits? Did you feel a slight unease about it, or even thought “What a self-righteous bastard!”, “Easier said than done!”, or “Good for you, but I could not do it!”?  It certainly happened to me. Retrospectively, I wonder why it is often so damn hard to acknowledge or even encourage people who you think are doing “the right thing”, when you at the same time do the direct opposite. Probably a healthy self-defence mechanism, but I am not a psychologist.

It’s ironic how much recognition you can get from your peer-group for a trip to, say, the Galapagos Islands, but how little recognition for flying less or even giving up flying. I am talking from experience, as I have done both. In times of Facebook, Twitter, and the like, where so many people are craving for recognition, this is not trivial. Of course, in principle I believe that it is much better to do things because YOU think they make sense, but let’s never underestimate the pressure that the feedback of what THEY think has on your behaviour.

The “give to a flightless friend” campaign email, even though unintended, made me think, that it would be so cool if we were generally better at encouraging people around us for doing “the right thing”, whatever that meant for us in that moment.
For me, when I read that email it sparked the idea of giving some positive feedback to my friend who quit flying before I did and who without doubt encouraged me to do likewise.  I think I never told him that he inspired me a lot with his decision. He was (or still is) an environmental scientist, like me, so career-wise it was no easy decision to stop flying.

As a little experiment, I want to ask you to go to your partner, your sister, your neighbor, your friend, or whoever your personal eco-hero is, and tell them about how cool you think they are and how important it is what they are doing. Buy them an ice-cream, a drink, or simply give them a friendly pat on the shoulder for their effort. Encouragement is such an important factor, making all the difference between burn-out and long-lasting activism. I believe, that such small deeds coming from one of your confidants are so important, to make people go on with their fights for social and ecological sustainability. Tell your peer-group to join this experiment and who knows, maybe eco-friendly will be the new main stream in no time.

For me this whole topic is still in the state of a thought experiment and I am still looking for new ideas and experiences how to promote eco-friendly behaviour within my peer-group. Have you got any cool stories and ideas to share?

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3 thoughts on “Give a gift to a flightless friend!

  1. If family and friends acknowledge that you are doing the right thing, eg not flying, they must acknowledge that they are doing the wrong thing aka beeing part of the biggest problem, ever. But it is not in human nature to live a „wrong“ life. Humans avoid cognitive dissonance at all costs. Now you are a part of their problem in dealing with their dissonance. Maybe they change behavior, stop flying. More likely they stop talking to you about global warming or talking to you at all. I wonder how much reward you got in the last years?!

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    1. You’re right it can cause a cognitive dissonance. But I am arguing here to move away from this binary thinking in good vs bad or black vs white. I think in principle it should be possible to acknowledge that a person close to you is “doing the right thing” without blaming yourself for “not doing the right thing”. It requires that both parties just drop the obvious contradiction and for the time being the focus stays on the “eco-friendly behaviour” without focussing on what the person acknowledging this behaviour is doing (or not doing). It certainly is tricky, but I think especially within your peer-group it should be possible.
      What you describe is the “normal”, there is a felt dissonance, so let’s not talk about it. Many people have an intuitive understanding of what would be the “right thing to do”, even though they do not act upon this knowledge, for whatever personal reasons. I am pretty hopeful that the inaction does not necessarily come with the inability to acknowledge eco-freindly behaviour.
      As I say, for me this is still experimental grounds, so let’s see what comes from it. I would like to see more open discussion, more recognition, at least among friends & family, without always ending up in thos defensive energy draining discussions about who is right and who is wrong, where noone is winning.

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