Recycle this!

Earlier this year a church service I attended was devoted to living green–recycling, reducing one’s carbon footprint, and so forth. I would be amazed if anyone in the congregation was not already aware of the arguments for doing these things. Lack of education is not a problem, at least for this group. Does that mean an educational presentation on the topic at a church service is useless? No, because it isn’t the education that is doing the work, it is the signaling of values.

Not infrequently someone describes some gratifying or noble aspect of their lifestyle and suggests everyone can or should adopt it. Recycling, gardening, exercising, and blogging are just some of many examples of activities that some suggest others should do. Proponents often say, “It’s good for the environment/your body/your mind. Plus, it isn’t hard. It doesn’t take that much time. It is fun.”

Well, at least those last three statements cannot be absolutely true since they are entirely subjective. But they reveal what I think is most often one’s true motivation for engaging in elective “noble” activities. We do them because they fulfill some need we have. We like them, not only for the value we perceive they bring to the world or our health, but because they make us feel good. But why do they make us feel good?

Take recycling. Doing so may make us feel good in part because our community values it. We sense the approval of society and we like how that makes us feel. And society values recycling because it has internalized the idea that it is good for the environment. But notice that our reasons for recycling may be one or two steps removed from the noble goals we may claim as motivation. If nobody cared that we did it, if we didn’t like to do it, if it was vastly harder to do, many of us wouldn’t (and years ago didn’t).

There’s nothing wrong with being motivated by enjoyment and convenience. I contend it is preferable to recognize that’s how most of us decide what to do. That is, if one is wondering why the world doesn’t adopt one’s lifestyle–which is obviously the right way to live–one ought to give some consideration to the fact that it isn’t because people don’t appreciate its objective value. It may have far more to do with the fact that the lifestyle doesn’t resonate. And it might not resonate because others don’t perceive its consequences as important in the eyes of the community. Your friends may think it is noble that you run five miles every day. His friends couldn’t care less, so neither does he. It’s about culture, not education.

What does this imply for public policy or educational campaigns? I suggest that finding ways to make things fun, convenient, and the expected norm (but not in a heavy handed way) is far more important than explaining to people why they are important. People might need to believe they are doing something important, yet they’ll do relatively fun or convenient things that are felt to be valued by others whether they’re important or not. So communicating community values and expectations can make a difference.

The homily on green living taught me nothing new about how to do so, but it did remind me that peers in my community think it is important. They expect me to do my part. And so I will, and do.

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