I have just returned from my six month trip overseas investigating sustainability initiatives, which involved travelling overland from the UK to Hong Kong via the Trans-Mongolian Express and then onto Japan and New Zealand. Here is some the learning I gained along the way.
At the risk of sounding clichéd, travelling really does re-instil the goodness of human nature. I cannot count the number of times that people showed their generosity and kindness throughout my trip.
Culture, society and infrastructure significantly affect how easy it is to be green
Having visited a lot of different places, across many countries, with diverse social, political and cultural contexts, it has shown how much a person’s surroundings determine the extent to which living sustainably is easy or possible. So much is also related to comparing with those around you in terms of the types of lifestyles people aspire to, or expect, or take as a given.
The most common response to greatest challenge? Money.
It was a question I asked everyone I met who works for a social change organisation and it was the most common answer I was given. In some ways the answer was not surprising.
The most common response to how behaviour change is measured? “It’s difficult!”/”It’s a work in progress”
I was curious to see what people said given that from my own experience I know how hard it is. I didn’t meet anyone on my travels who has a confident and fully comprehensive answer to this yet. Quite a few organisations in New Zealand are doing a great job at keeping track of outcomes, which is a very large step to have taken, and gives a signal of what behaviour change might have occurred. Many more people acknowledged the increasing importance of measuring impact though, so those at the front of the curve will surely be game-changers.
What first motivates people? Varied BUT common themes – teacher/parent/friend, nature, seeing injustice, having children
Every single person will have a different anecdote, or moment, or series of events that causes them to start caring about and acting on environmental issues. However, from asking everyone I met, I picked out some patterns. Some people just have a strong sense of injustice, which they may have got from an early age, or from learning more about the world as they got older. Many people spoke of a connection with nature when young, which I expected since it has been a common theme in the UK and USA over the last couple of years (e.g. Project Wild Thing, Last Child in the Woods, National Trust’s Natural Childhood). Probably the most common answer related to a particular person or people who introduced them to these issues, whether in the classroom, through their childhood, by bringing them to an event, or persuading them to take part in some activities, or just by discussing issues.
Individuals really can and do make significant changes
This comes mostly through the influence you (yes, you) have, whether consciously or unconsciously, on those around you. As you make the changes that you can, as one person, your sphere of influence grows so that over time, the significance of your actions increase. Every single organisation, institution or society is made up of individuals. Every change that happens, large or small, starts with one person. I feel ever more strongly that if every person realised that and took responsibility for themselves and lived a life that represented how they’d like the world to be, the ideal world would soon become reality.
Individuals who do make changes are empowered, confident, and believe in their ability to make a difference
It sounds obvious, but you do have to think that what you do has some kind of impact to motivate you to do it. This is something I’m keeping in mind for my career to help get more people thinking along those lines, believing in themselves, being happier for it, and creating positive change.
Connecting with others is key for creating wide-spread change
The more you engage with others, the more influence you have, and the more change you create. Humans are social animals. We follow fads and fashions. We change our perspectives based on what other people think. We surround ourselves with people we like and respect; those people like and respect you in return. When you do something, it gets noted.
When you think what you do makes no difference, remind yourself of this quote: “To the world you are one person; to one person (probably quite a few actually), you are (at least part of) their world”. Or, if this one resonates more, especially for others of you who have done some travelling: “If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito”.
Emily Dunning just returned from a six month trip overseas meeting people from environmental sustainability initiatives and social enterprises along the way (www.seekthechange.org). She has now works with Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership.