Table of Contents:
- What areas of interest are involved in this discussion?
- Sustainability in Context: A Brief History of the Term and its Usage
- In Context
- A Brief History
- Sustainability and Resilience: Buzzwords for the Future
- Criticisms of Sustainability
- How do the Millennials come into play?
- Progress Report
- The Nitty Gritty: What would a sustainable lifestyle even entail? (Interview with Steven Whitman)
- Challenges and Barriers
- How do we combat these challenges?
- Challenges and Solutions
- So, why should we, like, care? (a brief conclusion)
*Key terms are hyperlinked to a glossary here*
Millennials are the next big consumers. We’re also the next politicians, corporate employees, scientists, musicians, voters, moms, and dads. Our actions, in essence, decide the way of the future, so given this stance as the powerful next generation, how do we factor in the needs of the Earth? How can we fulfill the needs of our society, pay our debts and dues, and combat global warming? This paper hopes to explain the role Millennials play in the fight against climate change and whether or not a sustainable lifestyle is within reach given our current attitudes, education, and spending habits… all from the perspective of a Millennial.
What areas of interest are involved in this discussion?
A question like this is multifaceted and multidisciplinary by nature. It draws from the fields of: environmental science, engineering, economics, marketing, education, sustainability, sociology, and others. Like many environmental issues, there are stakeholders on every side, and it’s important to consider each one. You can’t talk about sustainable living without considering cost or economics; likewise, you can’t talk about Earth processes without knowing the science behind it. Disciplines like environmental science, engineering and sustainability derive from objective and logical processes and are defined by analysis. Economics and marketing take social data and human behavior into account; this isn’t to say that they aren’t logical and analytical, but there’s more subjectivity just based on what’s being studied.
Education is at the root of these and is the way that all of these disciplines are conveyed, whether formally in class or informally in conversations with friends. Based on the “Latin word ducos,” education is what leads people out of static ways of thinking (Hales, 2008, p. 22). This provides the framework for other disciplines to infuse themselves into this discussion of sustainable living and generational tendencies.
Sustainability in Context: A Brief History of the Term and its Usage:
Sustainability is a sexy idea. To do-gooders, it means buying “organic,” taking shorter showers, supporting local businesses, and jumping on the vague bandwagon to “Go Green” (Burgess, 2017). To laymen, perhaps it means tossing their plastic to-go cup in the recycling. It’s become a buzzword in recent years, as recent as the early 70’s, adopted by individuals, businesses, and scientists, who, each in their own regard, have applied different meanings to the term and its usage (Tovey, 2009, p.14).
“Go Green:” The tagline we’ve heard a million times before. What does it mean it you? CCBY Metro Bus Source: https://flic.kr/p/7GWVnf
Plymouth State’s Dr. Brian Eisenhauer, Director of Environmental Sustainability and University Professor, also noted that sustainability should hit the “Triple Bottom Line,” meaning that to ensure the full longevity of a service, product, or endeavor, etc., it should consider society, the economy, and the environment. It’s when we truly and holistically cover the bases on all three, can we really, with confidence, assure that something will last to provide for future generations socially, economically, and environmentally.
Sustainability, in reference to the environment, is highly contested. Some think about it from the mindset of development, while others are more concerned about conserving species and biodiversity for their intrinsic value. The most popular definition, the one that’s most widely accepted, does in fact refer to development. How could it not? It would be naïve to talk about sustainability without considering the fact that humans are unlikely to cull consumption on a global scale at a level that is sensitive to the needs of the planet. Considering environmental sustainability without development is like building a house in a flood zone; there’s an obvious conflict of interest, one that would be convenient to ignore. That being said, the most accepted definition of sustainability is the ability to “meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (United Nations, 1987, p. 16). It’s also important to note that meeting the “needs of the present” includes the needs of all species, not just humans. It’s with this solution-based philosophy of sustainability, one that’s admittedly much more positive than the doom and gloom theories we’re used to, that development can and should move forward in a productive way.
A Brief History
While the term “sustainability” is rather recent, the idea that humans can and should be considering the needs of other species in addition to themselves is not so new. In the early 1900’s, America’s first Chief of the U.S. Division of Forestry (later the U.S.F.S.), Gifford Pinchot, was an early pioneer in this way of thinking (“Gifford Pinchot,” n.d.). Pinchot was concerned primarily with maximizing agricultural yields and condemning the wasteful use of resources (Newton, 2005, p. 25). Ecologist Aldo Leopold took it a step further, suggesting the Earth had intrinsic value, and there should be consideration for the “‘[t]he health of the land as a whole…rather than the supply of its ‘constituent resources’’” (Newton, 2005, p.25). Throughout time, this concept progressed in value and depth, and of course, ideas about nature did not originate in the early 1900’s; however, as industry picked up at the turn of the century, great thinkers began pondering the ways the natural world and human progression intersected.
Later on in the 20th century, came Rachel Carson, who stirred the pot with her book Silent Spring. Until then, many of these aforementioned ideas were mostly popular among scholars and activists, not the general public. Carson’s ideas hit home for many
Rachel Carson’s famous work. CCBY Twilight Earth Source: https://flic.kr/p/5RxkRb
American citizens, as she warned about the potential for an actual silent springtime, one where the birds don’t greet the dawn with beautiful melodies, and the regeneration of vegetation is no more. This was terrifying! A world with no birds? No bees? Folks didn’t need to understand the chemistry behind DDT, the pesticide that was causing this damage, to understand the foreseeable effects (“Silent Spring,” n.d.).
Many followed in Carson’s footsteps, warning through the use of books, documentaries, and more recently, Facebook advertisements. The first Earth Day in 1970 was a culmination of all of these ideas and created an impetus for future policies, like the Clean Air and Water Acts, the Endangered Species Act, and more recently, regulations in the EPA. Since then, sustainability has taken a front seat, and the discussion of the term and its usage is ubiquitous.
Sustainability and Resilience: Buzzwords for the Future
Given the emergence of sustainability as a somewhat recent idea, and because it grew from earlier ideas of conservation and restoration, there were bound to be other ideas that stemmed from this one. One of those that’s becoming a buzzword of its own is resilience. In short, it’s the ability of a community or environment to bounce back/thrive despite a disturbance. In order for a system to be healthy and last enough to ensure the use of it for future generations (be sustainable), it needs to be able to recover from adversity.
Take bottled water, for example. In considering these bottles are made in part from petroleum, and we know that petroleum is a nonrenewable resource, we cannot guarantee the availability of plastic water bottles in the future (Clive, 2016). If anything were to happen to the available supply of petroleum (aside from the fact that we’re going to run out), the ability for the water bottle market to bounce back (or be resilient) would be nonexistent. If you were to use grey water instead, or a rain water harvesting system, or even just source it from the tap, you’d be choosing more sustainable and resilient ways to consume. Those processes can survive disruption better because there’s more accountability in the sources of the water, and we wouldn’t be putting our faith in nonrenewable sources. (Burgess, 2017).
Criticisms of Sustainability
It’s important not to take everything we read as creed. Having a critical, analytical mindset allows you to take what you like and leave what you don’t, highlighting only the best parts of an idea or concept. That being said, there are some questions that have been raised about the legitimacy of sustainability, especially in regards to its use as a term.
For one, it’s often unclear “what is being sustained,” and who is doing the sustaining (Newton, 2004, p.24). This comes back to the need for context when using the term, because otherwise, its use is ambiguous. Also, sustainability is “often represented to us as a goal or an endpoint,” which further adds to the lack of clarity (Tovey, 2009, p.16). How do we reach something that is process-oriented? How do we know when we’ve arrived? It’s this lack of ‘quantifiability’ that makes it difficult to market sustainability as an idea because there’s no concrete way to measure our success.
This isn’t to put a bad taste in your mouth before you read the rest. I’d argue that with any new idea, criticisms are a great way to legitimize the topic, to establish what we mean and how to use it. Yes, there’s a level of opacity that hides some of the details, ones that have yet to be ironed out, but there’s no reason to dismiss sustainability as obsolete before it fully emerges. There’s more good to come.
How do the Millennials Come into Play? Who are we why do we matter?
Portrayal of Millennials. CCBY Donatella Cinelli Colombini Source: https://flic.kr/p/ddV1VB
Millennials and Sustainability. Rumor has it, if you say that three times fast, you’ll be visited by Bill McKibben in your sleep, who’ll wave his magic “Ignorance Wand” over your head so that you can forget about the woes of the Earth, just like he has with the rest of my generation. Just kidding; we’re not that bad. Although, it’s hard to agree, because we are the generation who invented the Shelfie (selfie with a sheep)…
So who are we? For one, we’re the most populous generation in the nation, making up 28.7% of the population in 2014, and still growing faster than my Mom’s suspicion when I tell her I cleaned my room (for real this time); by 2020, experts predict that 1 in every 3 people will be a member of this generation (Raphelson, 2014). Born to Baby Boomer Moms and Dads, Millennials are said to have been born between 1980 and 2000, give or take, excluding other sub generations like Generation Y and Z for the sake of ease in this discussion (Raphelson, 2014). Regardless, we’re coming of age right now, and entering real adulthood faster than we can say, “what’s a 401(k)?”
The “Shelfie” is not to be confused with the “Shelfeepie,” which is what’s happening n this photo, where a sheep takes a selfie of him/herself. CCBY John Churchman Source: https://flic.kr/p/ddV1VB
Only about a third of us ages 25 to 32 have a bachelor’s degree, but with the average college debt being around $33,000 and the median income leveling out at it’s 1999 value, it’s no wonder we choose to educate ourselves with The Facebook and #FakeNews – at least it’s cheaper (Raphelson, 2014) (Angone, 2014). We’ve been called selfish and lazy and have been criticized for our constant need for instant gratification. However, despite the condemnations, one thing is for certain: we’re about to take over. We have and will continue to start to make big decisions about housing, transportation, employment, and power. We’re the next senators and government officials, and importantly in consideration of the environment, we’re the next big consumers.
Given this role as “one of the largest consumer groups,” how have Millennials been doing in regards to sustainability (Miller, 2016)? Pretty well, actually. Millennials are actually “said to make sustainability-based decisions and to have a strong social and environmental consciousness” (Miller, 2016). In one study in particular that was conducted around shopping practices and sustainability, 2/3 of respondents said that they were willing to spend more if it meant that the products and services were coming from companies who are “committed to positive social and environmental impact,” and these numbers were up from only about 50% in 2013 (“Green Generation,” 2015).
It’s been a common finding, that “millennials tend to care about the environment and civic engagement” (Valdes-Vasquez, 2014, p.18). Among those attending Higher Ed institutions, a number of students in one particular study even reported wanting to “address issues like poverty, disease, energy, water and food” (Valdes-Vasquez, 2014, p.22). There’s a surplus of evidence affirming the commonality of these sentiments among the Baby Boomers’ kids, and that’s reassuring.
You may ask: doesn’t this contradict the stereotypes? How could we make such informed, and even altruistic decisions if we’re supposed to be glued to our smartphones all the time? Perhaps we can loosely attribute this to the ‘good’ in everyone, admitting that even a generation as screen obsessed as ours could possibly be thinking of others in some cases; however, this is probably not the case.
In a recent survey about what Millennials “want,” it was found that, at least in terms of housing, this generation is expecting “affordable housing,” “hassle-free living,” and “walkability” (Ilyes, 2016). These desires, in a way, hit that Triple Bottom Line that was mentioned earlier, meaning it concerns the sustainability of the society, economy,
Millennials want walkability. CCBY Nikk Source: https://flic.kr/p/Z9i7EQ
and environment. Affordable housing? That considers economic feasibility of the consumer. Hassle-free living? What’s more hassle-free than living low waste and minimally? Walkability? That reduces the amount of vehicle traffic, and inspires a greater sense of community. So, in any case, maybe these desires aren’t coming from a place of altruistic concern for the ozone layer, but these choices could help ensure the longevity of resources where and when Millennials settle down. It may be best not to question the root of the desires, but take comfort in the fact that they exist at any rate.
Plus, research shows that there is “no direct link between values and action,” so even if those fuzzy, do-gooder feelings existed behind whatever ‘sustainable’ choices Millennials are making, it doesn’t really matter (James, 2010). We don’t really need people to care, we just need them to do it.
As much as we may not want to admit it, Millennials do make mistakes. Not forgetting the genuine positive progress we’ve made in terms of our consumption habits as a generation, it’s also important to consider where our ideas of sustainability are coming from, and what we have to improve. If we’re not forming ideas about what we want for housing or transportation from deeper places of altruism, how are we shaping these desires? What’s informing them?
Many people associate the concept of sustainability with “the environment in isolation, rather than human interactions with it” (Valdes-Vasquez, 2014, p.18). This separation of humans as being almost separate from the natural environment is toxic to helping promote sustainability and even in producing a positive attitude about the natural world. In a recent TedTalk by environmental writer Emma Marris, she emphasizes the viewing of ourselves as animals, which, in turn can broaden our definition of nature. She also stresses the importance of seeing the islands of vegetation that separate highways, or the small patches of garden in front of buildings, as being natural, and how re-recognizing those as natural while also integrating the understanding that humans are allowed to be considered a part of these systems is a lot more positive than separating humans and nature, like it seems many of us do.
The misconceptions that Millennials hold about sustainability, or even nature in general, are amplified by this physical disconnect from the natural environment. Our preferences for housing and consumption may involve a thread of civic and environmental awareness, but the source of such may be on unstable ground. “If young people are learning about conservation issues exclusively via the Discovery Channel, or Planet Earth DVDS, their ability to engage with nature may be limited” (Barton, 2012). In essence, if Millennials aren’t experiencing the nature that they may or may not try and help sustain, will their consumption patterns be as dedicated or as powerful? Perhaps, yes, their buying choices and preferences are environmentally inclined, but the disconnect from what they’re positively contributing to save is alarming at best.
Young people enjoying nature. CCBY Kate Burgess.
The Nitty Gritty: What would a sustainable lifestyle even entail?
This part isn’t going to be a “How-To” of sustainable living. There are more than enough resources on the good old Internet, and if I really wanted to cover every aspect of what a sustainable lifestyle could entail, this could go on for days. The point of this section is to give an overview of the types of domains that are most key to focus on and the ones that are maybe not worth your time. It’s to show that a sustainable lifestyle may not be as far fetched as some may think.
I figured that instead of consulting Google, I’d pick the brain of an expert who practices and preaches this stuff to the core. Steve Whitman, Community and Resilience Planner and Professor at PSU, was the man for the job. He’s vegan, walks to work, and even retrofitted a house from the 1800’s to reduce his footprint. And better yet, he considers himself to be a Millennial.
I asked Whitman to tell me what he considered to be the largest ‘domains’ for a Millennial to focus on for sustainable living. I was anticipating a response along the lines of: “Oh, it’s gotta be: diet, transportation, water usage, and consumption,” but he traveled in a different direction, one that I’m glad he did.
He started by commending Millennials for their already atypical lifestyles. He said, admitting to overgeneralizing, that Millennials are “open to new models, employment and living situations, and they don’t feel the need to put on fancy clothes and go to the office. They commute differently, and are content working in a coffee shop and breaking away from the traditional 9-5 model” (Whitman, 2017). This ‘unconventionality’ that he speaks about is a great foundation for the types of behaviors and choices we’d want to be engaging in to better suit the Earth. I felt a sense of relief from his observed optimism.
He went on to say that he didn’t have any specific domains in mind, in regards to my original inquiry. He recommended using one’s ecological footprint as a centerpiece, as making sustainable choices vary dramatically depending on where you live. This broad
A rather dreary (and literal) ecological footprint. CCBY pjlvadas. Source: https://flic.kr/p/9Ya7G4
approach is likely more attainable more the layman/laywoman who’s just starting out. It can be a bit overwhelming to try and change aspects of multiple areas of your life at once. (Just imagine becoming a vegan, trading your car for a bicycle, and outfitting your house with solar panels – all in one day!) This was a learning experience for me, because I had previously thought it was of the utmost importance to divide and conquer – in essence – get specific or get gone. That wasn’t the case, as Whitman explained.
One’s ecological footprint can provide the framework for diving into those specifics one at a time, when a person is ready. It’s a much more achievable approach, and it’s quantifiable. Whitman also went on to mention that we too often focus on the negative aspects of sustainable living, and that we should shift our attitudes, again demonstrating his infectious optimism. He’s hopeful the future of this movement.
I then went on to ask for some details. Above anything, he emphasized the “sharing economy.” “We have all these tools to share cars, tools, and homes,” Whitman said. He explained that this sharing network is a great way for Millennials to save money and build community; plus, the item or service gets a more complete use. What could be better?
This sharing economy applies to so many materials and services. Millennials have the opportunity to share residences and neighborhoods on a different scale than before. Cohabitation is “normalized in college,” he argues, “so there’s really less of a need to carve out your own space until you have a family.” It makes sense. If Millennials could embrace and occupy village and urban spaces (like many of us already do), that would help us save money, and even be less lonely. With the TinyHouse and cottage movements on the rise, he anticipates these living arrangements appealing greatly to people our age.
“So after Millennials decide to live smaller and closer, how do we get them to tackle the other aspects, such as reducing waste?” I asked. “It’s a series of small steps to start,” he
The TinyHome movement is on the rise. CCBY Tim Maroney Source: https://flic.kr/p/q4xP8r
answered. “After you move into the TinyHouse, maybe you start to replace your ziplock bags with cloth bags, then you move from the dryer to the clothes line, and so on. After a while, you’ve accumulated so much buy in, and the paradigm shifts happens after you look back.” So, for most, it won’t be a calculated decision to ‘live sustainably,’ but rather a series of attainable, small steps that result in something large. If anything, that takes some of the pressure off of knowing where to start. Just pick something little, and go from there.
On a personal level, Whitman loves the life he lives. He travels mostly on foot and on bike and admits that it’s a way more pleasurable way to get from A to B. He grows his own food to supplement his vegan diet, and enjoys the opportunities he has to teach and learn from others. He knows that diet can be a point of contention for many, so he makes it habit to not make a big fuss about it to others. “Talking about diets… those are fightin’ words,” he says. He knows better than to suggest a tofu burger to a guy or gal about to sink their teeth into prime rib. Diet is an enormously personal and cultural decision, and he respects that. He’s not only selfless in his decisions, but sensitive to others’.
Whitman provided many valuable insights to this conversation about sustainable living for Millennials. He broke it up, watered it down, and spoke about it in a way that seems accessible for anyone to tackle, regardless of previous experience and influence.
Challenges and Barriers: What’s preventing more Millennials from living sustainably?
We’re in a pretty good place, as Millennials. Whitman commended our already alternative lifestyle, and that could lead us to more good places. Some of us are already choosing to spend and commit to lifestyles, (maybe by accident), that are more sustainable than others, and that’s great. What about those who are following suit after other generations? Given what we now know about what a sustainable lifestyle might entail, what are the biggest reasons why a Millennial may still prefer a more traditional lifestyle? Let’s hear from a few (real life!) Millennials to find out.
In addition to hearing from Brian, Tim, and Kurt, I also asked some other folks from the Baby Boomer generation and above. In November, I presented at the Local Energy Solutions Conference in Concord, NH about sustainable living for the Millennial generation, and I figured I would extract some feedback from some experts in the business. The biggest challenges the audience seemed to agree on were: education, ‘drawing the line,’ overpopulation, and cost.
To break those down a bit, education and cost are two “gimmes,” seem to be universal. Some have more access to formal education than others, so becoming informed in order to choose a sustainable lifestyle is therefore more attainable for others. The same goes for cost. The majority of us obviously (by nature of the statistic) don’t belong to the 1%, or even the upper class in general, after all. With the unemployment rate for non-college educated millennials at over 12% in 2014, cost and education combine to create a super-barrier for those lacking both wealth and schooling (Raphelson, 2014).
Drawing the line and overpopulation were a bit more curious, so I further inquired. The audience member who mentioned drawing the line continued to note that this challenge was about where we, as Millennials, make the call for what we are and aren’t willing to do. For some, that might mean they cut the rope at recycling. Maybe they’re a single parent who works all the time, and they don’t have the time or money to commit to anything more. That’s understandable. Maybe others might have more time, energy, or money on their hands, and they’re willing to draw the line at something more extreme. Or maybe they’re ambitious and creative, and are willing to live completely alternatively (aka Vanlife). This is certainly a challenge because it considers a person’s values and even morals; folks might see it as, ‘what are we willing to lose so that others can gain?’
Van Life. CCBY Kate Burgess
Overpopulation is a massive challenge. I asked the audience member what they meant by this, and they responded saying it might be difficult to stick to any sort of sustainable lifestyle, because in the end, your efforts don’t do much when there are 7 billion other people in the world carrying on business as usual. “Well, thanks for the optimism,” I responded cheekily, secretly in quasi-agreement. When you step back and look at what’s actually driving climate change, population is one of the five biggest contributors, according to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (“Ecosystems and Human Well Being,” 2005). Ultimately, “economic growth and population growth lead to increased consumption of ecosystem services,” and it’s no secret that the more people using resources, the faster they will deplete (“Ecosystems and Human,” 2005, p.19). So for Millennials, this means that any choice we make is threatened in value by the rest of the world. Why should we even make an effort if our efforts are going to be neutralized by a self-indulgent neighbor driving a Hummer? (We’ll get into that later).
So, how do we combat these challenges and live sustainably?
To summarize thus far, it’s clear that after talking with folks from multiple generations and synthesizing their responses, there are a few major challenges that are agreed upon by all: education, comfort, and cost. How do we combat these? Well, the first step to solving a problem is to identify what’s preventing you from solving that problem. When that problem is how to change people’s behavior, identifying the barriers has shown to be a useful start; since we’re now clear on the challenges, let’s get onto the solutions.
Challenge: Access to and type(s) of education about sustainability
Solution: More non and informal education
As I mentioned earlier, it’s no secret that access to formal education is skewed towards those who have some form of privilege – but that’s no reason to frown. Formal education is not the only way to learn, and we can take solace in recognizing that. While K-12 and Higher Education institutions may be the most renown and prestigious in their teachings, we know better than to think those are the only portals our top scholars have walked through. We also know better than to think that those types of platforms are the most highly influential in teaching folks how to live.
Personally, I can say that my lifestyle choices were shaped more by my interactions with others I’ve had conversations with or have met while traveling than by what I learned in the classroom. I chose to cut red meat from my diet after hearing about it from many folks who did before me. I chose to shorten my showers after watching documentaries and reading books about water consumption. I chose to downsize my belongings after just simply learning how much of a pain they all were to manage. Maybe somewhere, subconsciously, the Quadratic Formula that I learned in eighth grade had a hand in shaping those decisions, but I’m more tempted to say that it didn’t at all. Not a bit.
This isn’t to say that there’s no place for K-12 or Higher Education institutions. Of course there is; hell, I wouldn’t be writing this right now if it wasn’t for college. Maybe I’m just bitter because of all the debt. It’s just that these systems aren’t accessible to everyone, and if sustainable behavior is something that should (then again, who am I to say?) be adopted by everyone, more than just a fraction of the Millennial generation should be informed in a way that works for them.
One example of a non/informal way of educating, but moreso shaping behavior is a model called Community Based Social Marketing (CBSM). It’s a system that was created to foster sustainable behavior, and has been particularly helpful in non smoking campaigns. You’ll remember Dr. Brian Eisenhauer from earlier; he teaches about and has performed studies that use CBSM, and he attributes its success to a few foundational ideas. For one, he suggests that “simply providing more information rarely results in behavioral change” (Eisenhauer, 2017). Essentially, neither giving a 20-something a detailed pamphlet about the specs of electric cars, nor having them take a class in Environmental Science will cause them to buy a Tesla (ignoring, of course, the fact that they cost an arm and a leg).
CCBY Michelle Vigen. Source: https://www.slideshare.net/MichelleVigen/cbsm-webinar
Similarly, Eisenhauer also notes that this system doesn’t focus on a change in values, because he believes you really “can’t make people care about things, but you can helpthem see the benefits and then make a logical choice” (Eisenhauer, 2017). Some Higher Ed institutions suggest that it is the values that “enlighten, enable and empower our choices” (Hale, 2008, p. 22). That’s a nice, dreamy thought; it’d be great if we actually acted on our (good) values. Unfortunately, you can’t show a Millennial a slideshow of sad polar bear pictures to the tune of REM’s “Everybody Hurts” and expect us to ditch their vehicles and walk to work. What you can do, and what does work, is target what’s stopping us from making that choice on our own, and market it in a way that we feel requires “little effort, expense, and no dramatic change in lifestyle” (zie-Mohr, 2000, p. 546).
CBSM works because it does just that. This marketing technique requires knowing your audience, analyzing the barriers associated to changing/adopting/ditching a certain behavior, designing a program to overcome those barriers, and evaluating and improving the program (Eisenhauer, 2017).
It is is utilized and employed by social scientists and conservationists, among others, in order to, in a way, educate the public about sustainability, the issues associated, and what citizens can do to alter their own behavior. It involves meeting citizens where
An example sticker. Source: PSU Campus Sustainability Guide
they’re at, rather than bombarding them with information and lingo that they won’t understand, which is what makes it informal. It’s not a substitute for formal education, but rather a supplement, and is certainly more accessible. Examples might include: stickers on light switches in public buildings to promote turning off lights; door to door canvassing to promote the reduction of water usage, incentives for purchasing renewables, and so on. The only caveat is that it’s out of our hands as to when and how these campaigns are initiated, but with this concept on the rise, it won’t be long until we see it more in action.
Another quick note that should be mentioned is the importance for informal, experiential education at a young age. That’s a topic that I’d better summarize in short; otherwise, I could go on for pages. For the kids who are not as highly influenced as CBSM as us “adults,” outdoor, experiential education is a great way for adolescents to fill the void of nature appreciation before they get to the vital stage of consumption and
Get outdoors. CCBY Kate Burgess
decision making. If they spent time outdoors exploring and learning about its intrinsic value, they might be more privy to developing behavior that concerns the protection of those natural spaces that they grew up enjoying. Overall, it’s easier said than done, but maybe just start by going for a walk in the park and go from there.
Lack of access to the ‘right’ kind of education about sustainable living for Millennials is a solvable problem. By using CBSM, outdoor experience, and other non and informal techniques, people’s behavior can be changed, and we can step closer to sustainable living for our generation before it’s too late.
Challenge: Loss of the comfortable lifestyle we all know and love
Solution: Changing our language
It’s incredible how an attitude can change with a simple shift in perspective. This perspective is due mostly in part to the language we use to shape our thoughts and the language we hear used by others. If we’re angrily yelling in our brain about how the guy in front of us changed lanes without putting on his blinker, our attitudes and perspectives on driving are going to adhere to that emotion. If we’re calm in our thoughts, healthily expressing thoughts of impatience, over time, if that response becomes habitual, it’ll become part of our overall attitude and perspective. When the guy who cuts us off turns his head to motion that he’s sorry, we’ll likely be able to accept that much better than had we been speaking negatively in our thoughts moments earlier. It just takes a little practice.
Similarly, the language we use about our level of comfort, especially as it relates to sustainability, has big consequences. You hear people contesting that they would “lose”
Simplicity. CCBY Kate Burgess
privacy by moving into shared housing. Or that by “reducing” their possessions, they would be “sacrificing” sentimentality. The “loss” of a comfortable lifestyle, the “reduction” of our usage… these negative words have negative consequences. Just by altering our perspective can we start to see what we’re able to gain or add to our lives by making sustainable choices. Instead of “losing” privacy, we’d gain a community. As opposed to “sacrificing” sentimentality, we’re gaining simplicity. The idea is not to suffer, but to thrive.
Challenge: Cost of sustainable living
Solution: One step at a time
I approached writing this section with a big sigh. This one is the killer. As a student with a boatload of debt, I can absolute empathize with those who say “screw $75/lb local and organic avocados” when they can buy twice the amount of Walmart produce for a fraction of the price. I get it. I’m in the same boat. In a lot of ways, living sustainably can be really pricey! But it’s also important that we approach these costs with a long-term mindset. Yes, I know that’s easier said than done if you don’t have the initial cash to make a down payment on solar panels for your house. I sure as heck don’t. But looking at what we know now about the sharing economy, changing small consumption habits, and perhaps living with a bit less luxury (but arguably a lot more life), maybe we don’t have to shell out as much buck as we might have thought.
Employing a quick search on Google, I wanted to find ways to ‘live sustainably without the cost.’ The first one that I found was this article, which presented a list of 12 different ways to reduce our footprint. After doing a short evaluation, I found that 8 out of the 12 options listed either involved a reduction or neutralization of costs in the short and long term! For example, driving less or “ditch[ing] the plastic” both involve you as the consumer, spending less money (“12 Ways to Live,” n.d.). Before I get ahead of myself or start preaching to the choir, I just thought it was worth sharing that even some of the most basic options can be cheap. Those are ones that can be taken one step at a time, and if you’re still interested and the money works out, the big purchases like solar or wind can come later.
So, why should we, like, care? (A brief conclusion)
You’ve heard the history, the specs, the challenges, the solutions, and now comes the million-dollar question: why does this even matter? Why the heck have I been rambling about ‘kids these days’ and ‘environmental stuff’ for so long?
Concepts “of sustainability and energy awareness are part of [our] vocabulary,” and we’re clearly, for the most part, civic minded individuals (Bonadonna, 2017). So what’s the big fuss? Aren’t we already doing enough? The big fuss is about the sensitivity of the position we’re in as Millennials right now. While we may be civic minded, if these values
Millennials posing with their good friend “Globey.” CCBY Kate Burgess
aren’t reflected in our choices, that could have big implications for the health of the Earth. Even for the folks that lack these values, making these choices don’t need to come from a place of altruism; the choices could be about saving money, or even fitting in. At this point, does it really matter why we’re choosing to live sustainably, as long as we are? (That’s a debate for another time). As I said earlier: we are the next politicians, corporate employees, scientists, musicians, voters, moms, and dads. Our actions, in essence, decide the future of the Earth. This is why we should care.
I consulted with an expert, Steve Whitman, as to why he thinks it all matters, and he satisfied my curiosity with a dose of realism. He admitted that small choices on their own (like driving less or taking shorter showers) don’t necessarily have an impact on carbon neutrality, but they do have a huge impact on other people. “It’s the butterfly effect,” Whitman explained. “It’s our collective consciousness and these choices have an impact on deciding to what degree society has a whole starts to flip” (Whitman, 2017). With this, folks can feel good that down the line, changing their behavior might ripple out to changing the behavior of folks around.
No one wants to say goodbye to “the precious stillness, the lovely, mysterious, and awesome space” that is our Earth (Edward Abbey). No one wants to live on barren, desolate land, see their coastal neighbors’ homes flood, or watch wildlife drown in debris and smog. No one also wants to shell out their life savings to save a species they may have never heard about. No one wants to lose the norm. I see both sides, but I also see a middle ground. We have this incredible power behind our choices to help ensure the longevity of resources, land, wildlife and beauty for the next generation, and I hope we use it responsibly.
In speaking directly to my people, my fellow Millennials, this matters to us for so many more reasons than I’ve mentioned. One more time for the people in the back: we are the next generation of politicians, advisors, yay-sayers, nay-sayers, voters, and big consumers. We’re it, guys. Yes, that’s my ego shining through, but it’s also my sense of urgency… one that I hope we all share. We know the threat climate change poses, and we also know that we’re going to be the ones cleaning up the mess in 50 years. We’re at this killer junction right now: we can carry on with our wasteful habits, or we can choose to consider the Earth. I hope we choose the latter.
In case you were wondering how 20 pages of rambling got put together!
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