Thanks to the work of campaigners and activists we have reached a point where the majority of people are aware we are facing an environmental crisis (finally!). From climate change to species extinction, more of us are starting to understand things are looking quite bleak for the planet. 

But now we’ve come to a broad consensus that we need to do ‘something’, we face the much tougher question of ‘how are we going to do it?’

And it seems that large portions of the environmental community are still reaching for the same solution they have for a long time; dramatically changing our individual behaviours and lifestyles to reduce our individual impacts and thus the total impact of humanity.

This might be to adopt a vegan diet, to ditch the single use plastics or to pledge to never step foot on an aircraft again. There’s a sort of romanticism in this way of thinking, the idea of being ‘all-in’, of making personal sacrifices for the greater good. But the reality is that in the year 2019 this is actually really difficult to do.

Everywhere we look there are single use plastics, and this is with reason. Plastic is a cheap easily malleable material that helps store a variety of products, perhaps keeping them fresh or protected for our convenience. Then there’s meat or dairy which finds it’s way into practically everything on the supermarket shelves even down to sweets and crisps. The list just keeps growing when you think about other problems such as palm oil or the impacts of practically any item of new clothing you might buy.

The reality is, it’s really hard to be good these days.

Even trying to do the right thing is fraught with potential pitfalls. You better be ready for critics of battery production when you buy that new electric car or for those ready to point out the environmental impacts of producing tote bags when you ditch the single use plastic ones for what you thought was a better option.

It makes me chuckle when I see people from an older generation posting something on social media along the lines of:

“When I was a lad we got our food in a paper bag and we used to go on holiday to the local beach.”

But this is the point, there wasn’t the choice. People didn’t have to tiptoe through their daily lives constantly having to make these decisions, choosing to often spend more to do the right thing. These days a holiday on the British coast might even cost more than a holiday in the south of Spain and if you don’t want a plastic bag and you forgot your own then good luck juggling those groceries down the high street.  

Millennials onwards were born into a world of convenience. Not only that, but we have been told from day one to buy as much stuff as we can fit in our rental flats.

So you are born into this world, have never known any different, are actively encouraged by companies to behave in ways that will have an inevitable negative impact on the environment and then we are expected to completely change our lives overnight. It’s no wonder this turns people off or even makes them switch to full on denial.

To use a crude analogy, imagine giving a baby loads of new toys and then 5 minutes later asking for them back or replacing them with less interesting toys, they will probably kick up a fuss.  

So how do we get out of this mess? Well here are two ideas:

Make it easy for people

More people than ever say they care about the environment and want things to improve. But the fact is, aside from the most passionate people, most are busy, hard-working and they feel like if things are made available to them and aren’t illegal then there are more important things to worry about.

We need to make it easier for people to be good. For supermarkets this means taking away plastic wrapping on products that don’t need it, stopping the sale of products that lead to the destruction of rainforests and maybe only stocking locally sourced seasonal goods. I guarantee people will very quickly get over the fact they can’t get asparagus all year round once it is gone. It’s not like we are taking away food we are simply taking away the choice from the consumer who is busy and just wants to feed the family without worrying that they are personally responsible for destroying the Amazon.

Focus on making everyone 10% better rather than making 1% of people 90% better

This quest for perfection is unrealistic and in my opinion actually quite damaging to the environmental movement. We are much better trying to get 90% of people to become 10% better than to end up with 1% of people becoming 90% better.

The most hardened devoted environmentalists will be able to go all-in, their desire to do whatever it takes is strong enough to overcome the difficulties and sacrifices it takes. But for most people, it will be too difficult and they will simply give up.

I’ve had much more success in, for example, suggesting people try and only eat meat at weekends and be more aware of where it comes from. Or perhaps cutting down by one flight a year. It might sound weird to hardened environmentalists who have done these things for a long time, but for a lot of people in the developed world, there is a lot of ground to be made up in encouraging these incremental changes at scale rather than demanding instant perfection.  

Yes, we do all need to become better at buying less stuff we don’t need but a lot of the things people are asking us to give up are not completely pointless. Meat for a start is popular because it is often really tasty, it also has huge cultural significance for many people, forming the key ingredient of dishes passed down through generations. Plastics, when used in the right way are incredibly useful, they allow me to type on this computer and help with so many things we take for granted.  And let’s be honest, flying is amazing, it allows those fortunate enough to explore the world and different cultures without having to take months of work to do so.

It might not be as interesting to ask people to be just a little bit better, but let’s be honest for a second,  being good is hard these days and if you’re trying even slightly, that is still better than most!

Rob Wreglesworth

Rob is the head writer and podcast producer for The Disruptive Environmentalist. He is on a mission to build a community of people that are passionate about solving environmental problems.
Rob Wreglesworth
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