Becoming a sustainable thinker

Many of us are on auto-pilot when it comes to our daily habits and routines. We’ve developed schedules that get us to and from work, and enable us to meet our needs, and those of our families. But we’re learning that the methods we employ to “get ‘er done” are causing environmental damage that we must limit if we’re to protect the Earth. Fortunately, human beings are incredibly adaptive. If we weren’t, we wouldn’t have spread out to inhabit the globe. So I’m hopeful when it comes to the average person’s ability to live more lightly and “greenly” on Spaceship Earth.

Growing up, we don’t learn, beyond some pretty limited basics, to consider the effects of what we do on the Earth. And although learning to assess our actions through an environmental lens is critical, since what we DO flows from what we THINK, changing our behaviors to be environmentally-friendly requires transforming our thought processes first.

Each of us is a product of our family-of-origin. How our parents interacted with the environment is our model until we go to school. There, we learn some environmentally-friendly ways of thinking and doing, but schools aren’t run by sustainable thinkers yet. So the vast majority of us develop Earth-protective values and goals as adults, and therefore long after our behaviors are deeply habitual! But as I said, people have enormous capacity for adaptation, which is after all nothing more (nor less) than learning, and then implementing, better ways of being and doing.

Sustainable thinking is the foundation of behavior that respects and protects the Earth. It’s the idea that we should live in a way that can be continued indefinitely. A way that meets human needs without diminishing resources, especially not critically. A way that doesn’t produce materials that have no useful purpose, either because they can’t be recycled, or because they’re toxic, or both! A way that recognizes that when we throw something away, it doesn’t disappear; on a finite planet, there is no “away.” A way that ensures enough for everyone, including the other amazing beings that live on our planet.

Sustainable living has been practiced in various ways for a long time. It was how people lived until the age of fossil fuel burning. But when we discovered oil, the remains of millions of years’ worth of plant and animal decomposition, everything changed. This cheap source of energy allows industries to produce substances nature wouldn’t ever have created, and can’t break down. It allows massive worldwide resource excavation and the invention of billions of “products” for commercial sale. It fuels the proliferation of “supply chains,” the “harnessing” of super cheap labor, and a transportation industry that floods the globe with products. It transformed how we grow food, caused the mass seeding of water-hungry crops, and now dictates what we eat. It fuels massive deforestation and the plunder of the seas. It cries out for us to pave the Earth so that vehicles burning oil can move people and products all over the world.

Nonsustainable ways of living proliferated because we found oil. Now we have to learn to live sustainably again! I just read a fantastic book called “The power of sustainable thinking” (2005) by Bob Doppelt. This book is FULL of wisdom about people, how we think, and how we can do better.

Doppelt includes climate change-pertinent info even as his main focus is transforming oneself into a sustainable thinker. Why? Well, climate change is, in truth, only ONE consequence of our unsustainable ways of living, although it is the most serious one we now face. But sustainable living would help reduce the damaging effects of all kinds of problems we have, including plastics pollution, ocean acidification (effecting food supplies), soil degradation, deforestation, species loss, poverty, and wealth inequality.

To review, sustainability is the capacity to live day-to-day without: 1) over-taxing the Earth’s resources, or ability to renew those resources; and 2) producing materials that either can’t be broken down into component parts for re-use, or that are toxic. Seems simple, right? And it is! But, unfortunately, people have developed lifestyles that WAY over-use the Earth’s resources, and which produce all kinds of toxic and wasteful “by-products.” In particular, the burning of fossil fuels has resulted in massive quantities of greenhouse gases (GHG’s) polluting our atmosphere. Our energy-production system has brought us a climate crisis. So the need to change our thinking towards sustainability is pressing indeed. Doppelt’s book offers high quality info and advice- invaluable contributions to saving planet Earth and every living thing upon it.

In the introduction, Doppelt explains that “the fields of psychology as well as organizational change have long known that people, teams and organizations evolve through a series of fairly predictable stages whenever they undergo significant transformation in their thinking and behavior. Very different types of change mechanisms are necessary for people who are not yet interested in new approaches than for people who are considering a change.” People can be quite resistant to altering their thinking “when the changes involve deeply held beliefs and assumptions.” Many people are not receptive to the motivators typically employed by environmentally-concerned people, like fear and guilt. He says people must be approached where THEY are in their thinking, not where the already “woke” and environmentally-conscious are.

In fact, there’s a whole spectrum of stages that people move into and out of in the journey from unmotivated consumer, say, unaware or unconcerned about environmental fallout, to committed and motivated changer, actively seeking info about how to behave sustainably in a holistic, consistent way. Furthermore, each stage involves the person weighing the relative advantages and disadvantages to changing their patterns of thinking and acting. And as that weighing process is going on, the person is amenable to different interventions meant to encourage their progress. Success means consolidating learning and making new thinking and behavior habitual, as well as, critically, continual recognition of the benefits of the new ways, and steadily increasing confidence in one’s ability to continue thinking and behaving sustainably.

Doppelt explains “how we think.” The basic building blocks of human thought are concepts. “Concepts allow us to create categories and make distinctions among things… our concepts are merely attempts to describe what we see, sense and experience… our most important concepts are formed in early childhood as we continually adopt new distinctions in order to make sense of the world around us… we also learn rules, such as ‘don’t talk to strangers…’ No formal instruction accompanies this early learning process. It is natural, and occurs through trial and error, listening, sensing, observing, and undoubtedly genetic influences” (p. 59-60). As we grow, we combine concepts and rules to create theories, which we then test against reality. These range all the way from, “I’m loved,” to “rainy days smell good,” to “toys- things I own that give me pleasure- get broken, and then we throw them away,” to “I can’t wait to have my own noisy truck because it’s super fun to drive fast, especially when it’s dark and quiet outside.”

Doppelt goes on to mental frames, which are “the deeply felt beliefs, assumptions, and stories we hold… about the nature of [ourselves], other people, how the world works, and our role in it all. Mental frames have three interlinked elements: core beliefs, core assumptions, and automatic thoughts. Core beliefs are the deepest level of cognition. They are the unconditional views we hold about the world… [and] tend to be absolute- we believe them without reservation.” Examples: “truth at all costs,” “I have a role in this world,” “nice guys never get ahead,” “the environment is created for people to use however they want,” “the authorities know what they’re doing in letting companies make stuff,” and “everybody is on their own; people who can’t make it aren’t worthy of respect.”

From these core beliefs arise our core assumptions, which take the form of “rules” about the world we don’t readily question. Our rules dictate how we take in info, filtering it so that it shores up what we already believe. This is where “confirmation bias” lives, and many other kinds of thinking shortcuts that don’t serve us! If, for example, we believe that we’re often devalued by other people, we may interpret an acquaintance’s failure to return a call as deliberate disrespect rather than assume the person is busy. These rules can prime us to see opportunity and hope in situations, or to project a lack of confidence or faith in people. If one of our core beliefs is that we don’t deserve love or success, we may short circuit accomplishments (self-sabotage) via core assumptions like, “I’m not even going to try here. I’m always rejected.” Doppelt: “We use these rules to determine our expectations; to guide how we will achieve our goals and pleasure; to protect ourselves from physical or psychological harm; to form and sustain relationships with others; and in other ways to determine how to behave.” Profound, hey? Profound and powerful.

The last component of mental frames are automatic thoughts, and they may be even more powerful shapers of our behavior than core beliefs and core assumptions. As we boogie around doing things, our minds are continually working, but like background noise to which we pay little attention. This is the “automatic pilot” mode we enter when tasks don’t demand concentration, or have been done hundreds of times before. Sometimes we’re making observations, or remembering events and encounters, but on a semi-conscious level, so that we often don’t remember what we were thinking about later on. The cliche is the driver who arrives home, pops out of auto-pilot, and then wonders, “how the heck did I get here?”

But even though on automatic pilot, we’re not consciously thinking, our core beliefs and assumptions are still active, framing our thoughts- imbuing them with personal meaning- even as we appear to be wrapped in tasks. And as the core beliefs and assumptions occur, so too do automatic thoughts- fleeting snippets, self-commands, judgments, or observations, that are often accompanied by emotion. As Doppelt says, “We are often not aware of our emotions, just as we are usually not conscious of the thoughts that automatically pop into our heads… However, each influences the other. Our automatic thoughts trigger our emotions and our emotions trigger automatic thoughts and behaviors.”

Life conspired to provide me with a concrete example of this, just now! My son was preparing to go to a new doctor as I worked on this post at the messy kitchen table. He was exploring the table, trying to locate his ID card. I knew his foot, “dysfunctional” due to a congenital condition, had been bothering and worrying him, so I was eager for him to get what he wanted- a referral to an orthopedic specialist. At the same time, I could sense his anxiety about meeting a new authority figure, and lacking his ID! After he left, I realized that what had been running through my mind as he rummaged around my workspace was, “he never takes care of things. If he had just put that card away, he’d know exactly where to find it now. Why can’t he be more careful? He always seems to be losing things…” Then my mind flipped back to the morning when I’d discovered that the laptop I’d ordered might not have gotten ordered correctly, and how I’d asked my son to order it for me, but he took so long doing it that I ended up doing it myself… So here I appeared to be calmly writing this post while in reality I was experiencing automatic thoughts triggering anger and resentment and huffing and puffing internally!

Why hadn’t my rational mind taken over? After all, “the rational mind serves as our control panel, managing and moderating our emotions. Thus, although you may not be able to prevent emotions from arising, the way you think is the key to regulating and controlling them. By becoming conscious of and adjusting the thoughts that roll through your mind, you can alter and control your emotions. There’s no greater skill in life… It is the root of all self-control, happiness, and maturity in a human.” The truth is that often our rational minds aren’t successful at “regulating and controlling” our thoughts and emotions. Our culture doesn’t teach us how to do this! But this is what “mindfulness” is all about- developing “the capacity to honestly [identify and] examine [our] thoughts and control [our] emotional impulses and behavior.” Without this skill, “Over time, people… come to believe that their mental frames are reality and that this reality is obvious to everyone. They think that their core assumptions and beliefs are based on hard, verifiable data, and the data they select are the only valid data… individuals are more likely to believe and gravitate towards others who reaffirm the views they already hold… and discount or ignore people who do not.”

What does all that mean? It means that our core beliefs and assumptions are what create our “bubbles,” and people who challenge what we’ve come to believe is written in stone are labelled as “libtards,” “right-wing nutjobs,” etc, and categorized as folks to be distrusted, viewed as dangerous, ridiculed, doxxed, and disregarded for all time lest they say something we’d rather not hear.

Such rigidity in thinking makes me sad. I often wondered why people fail to “update their data banks,” i.e. take in new info and revise their operating beliefs about themselves and their world. It is, after all, so very important that we make decisions about vital matters with the best info possible. Well, now I have an answer. We can get stuck in our beliefs, and God forbid the people around us are similarly mired! And what happens when millions of people passionately believe that certain things are true, and particular values are best, and that people who don’t think and behave as they do are defective or bad or both?

Well, this explains our times, doesn’t it? The dominant paradigm in the west, neoliberalism, is the mental frame explaining, and dictating the structure of, our societies. Neoliberalism says: profits above all. Survival of the fittest: if you aren’t wealthy, it’s your own fault. If you are, you’re admirable, brilliant, the ultimate role model. The Earth exists for people’s purposes; we must transform “the commons” into private property, and maximum profit. Anything can and should be monetized. Use, produce, manufacture as cheaply as possible, sell to maximize your take. Single-use items made from plastic that breaks down into “mermaids’ tears?”

“As long as I make money, I don’t care about your little environmental issues.”

Who’da thunk neoliberalism, in less than 45 years, would fill our oceans with plastics, our landfills with toxic slime that filters into our drinking water, and the skies with the by-products of burning fossil fuels, so much that it would critically mess up our climate?

Whew! It’s easy to see that I’m thinking sustainably πŸ™‚ Let’s see where you are!

Doppelt calls stage one “Disinterest.” People in this stage, “have little interest in altering their perspectives or activities regarding the climate, natural environment, or social well-being.” An example of “disinterest” is that consumer I talked about before, who lives a life uncomplicated by worry about the environment. “Disinterested” people “have little awareness of the issues, deny that their behavior contributes to the problems, believe the effects are inconsequential, have lost hope that they can do anything… or don’t believe that they can [change].” Interestingly, folks around disinterested people can see that they’re impacting or being impacted by their unsustainable thinking and behavior, even as the disinterested ones can’t. And, of course, a disinterested person may be actively defending an “I can’t change” stance for a variety of reasons, which changes their stance, effectively, to “I won’t change.”

Stage 2 is called “Deliberation,” and as the name implies, the “deliberating” are feeling like all is not right with the world, and they may need to alter their ways a bit. The identifying phrase is, “I might change…” and they are looking for info. I actually put most average climate change deniers in this category, because they’re not deeply invested in denial due to employment by an oil company or one of its tentacles. Rather, their protest of “prove it,” or repeating of conspiracy theories are cries for help, along the lines of, “I’ve heard this word, ‘climate change,’ and I get the feeling it could be bad, and I’m scared. Can you help me understand what’s actually going on here? I need to know if I have to take this threat seriously.” They don’t want to believe, but their gut tells them something’s off. Sometimes they’re almost 100% sure there’s nothing to worry about, but they repeat the “evidence” that made them doubt climate change to see if it can be refuted. Climate change educators should absolutely engage these folks with the facts. We don’t have to engage deeply with angry people, but besides respecting the deliberater’s right to the truth, we may plant a seed that will convince them to look into climate change more. They’ll only trust us if we’re kind and respectful.

A person in deliberation mode seeks info so s/he can assess the risks, learn about ways to mitigate those risks, and to weigh the pro’s and con’s of adopting sustainable thinking and acting. It’s possible to become a chronic deliberater, unsure of how your thinking holds you back, how your actions impact the Earth, how you can change to think and act sustainably. And that’s tragic, because the Earth needs all of us to start assessing our behaviors through that environmental lens. We need to reach a tipping point, because our governments are failing us on this. It’ll take a broad coalition of citizens demanding healthy transformation to move these industry-addled representatives of ours.

I like the way Doppelt puts it: “If you don’t know when or why your thinking and behavior are problematic and are unsure if new patterns can help to resolve global warming or other issues, you are not likely to make or stick with change for long. Almost every psychological and sociological approach to change emphasizes that some degree of awareness must come before change… Changing behavior without first developing some level of increased awareness is not likely to lead to fundamental change.”

The third stage is called “Design” and this is where people say, “I will change.” Here, “people have concluded that the benefits of becoming a sustainable thinker significantly overshadow the costs… In fact they may already have made a few small changes to see how it feels and test their ability to succeed.” They may still have doubts about the benefits or their ability to maintain changes, but with continued wins, and info about the benefits of sustainability thinking and behaving, doubts fade.

A great motivator for change Doppelt talks about here is mindfulness. Doppelt calls it, “self-appraisal,” and it “involves deciding if your current thinking and behavior patterns allow you to be the person you really want to be… do an honest appraisal to determine if they allow you to live up to the aspirations and values you hold dear.” He then outlines a method for whenever one is “about to make a decision or take action.” It requires identifying, in that moment, the emotions and automatic thoughts running through one’s mind. He gives the example of coming home from work after a long summer day. He’d forgotten to turn the air conditional on that morning, so the house was hot. After a fit of irritation that included him judging himself “lazy” and cursing the design of the A/C system, he turned his rational mind on and concluded that the house wasn’t unbearable, and he’d turn the A/C on the next day. So he ended up saving a fair bit of electricity, and greenhouse gas emissions.

What if everyone in the west had calmly asserted that the A/C could stay off that day? That a 75 degrees C home wasn’t that hot, and that the damage to the environment wasn’t worth the few hours of fleeting comfort? That the health of the planet was more important than a few cool hours that would be forgotten the next day, whereas the win for Mother Earth could be relished? She’d survive, my friends… our planet would be healthy. If we can make sustainable thinking and behaving the new norm, a way of habitual thinking, our planet will be ok. And so will we.

Stage 4, “Doing,” is when people say, “I am changing.” This is when, “people, teams, and organizations… are explicitly taking action to modify thinking and behavior… doing means that overt changes are now visible to others… [and] therefore puts the doer under the spotlight. To persevere, they must remain committed, make structural adjustments, and remember that the benefits of change are worth the effort.” In the “Doing” stage, assessing one’s automatic thoughts, core assumptions, and core beliefs is actively practiced. In particular, a person stays mindful so that environment-related thoughts can be made conscious, and analyzed for adherence to one’s sustainable values. The idea is that one wants to choose behaviors that are in accordance with protecting the Earth.

To illustrate: I’m in the doing stage- actively working towards more sustainable ways of living. One of my biggest issues is plastic bags. While I can recycle them, it’s far preferable, from a planet-friendly perspective, to not bring them home in the first place. Sometimes, though, it’s unavoidable. So often I use those plastic bags to put compost in. I then empty the bags in the compost pile, and rinse them out for re-use. Eventually, they’re pretty dirty. And a part of me, I admit, doesn’t always want to clean them thoroughly so that I can send them for recycling. So every time I go to chuck them in the garbage, I ask myself, “what’s more important, that this bag not sit in the “landfill” shedding microplastics, or that I’m not momentarily inconvenienced?” Nine times out of 10, the Earth wins. And, of course, so does the human race.

Even so, this plastic bag problem is not getting better. So I’m thinking bigger. Like using re-purposed textiles to make bags for produce at the grocery store. Like a letter campaign to lobby food companies to give us some options other than plastic packaging. I’ve reached a place where I’m willing to put in significant time and effort to spark change. I know my efforts may not “pay off,” but I’m still committed to them. It was a long process getting here, but now I’m convinced the upsides of these efforts far outweigh the downsides. Each action I consider goes through a process of weighing- can I afford the time? Is this effort going to demand so much energy that I give up on it? Can I get my family to help me/buy into this behavior? And I uncover my core values, beliefs, and assumptions. Doppelt suggests these questions to make one’s beliefs more clear: “how do I ideally want to live my life regarding the climate, natural environment and social well-being? What values are most important to me and how might caring for the climate… fit in with those values? If I could have the ideal world today, without constraints, how would I treat the climate, natural environment, or communities? What type of climate… do I want to leave my children and grandchildren?”

I’ve found that finding ways to live more sustainably is addictive. I’ve been at it about 8 years. Now I’m starting to confront changes that’ll involve more work. Like selling the car. Like setting ourselves up to grow food through the winter (with solar generated electricity no less!) Like making sure every art supply we purchase is sustainable. Like approaching the city government to start a community garden in my neighborhood. And this blog is a long-term effort to spread info about sustainable living and how satisfying it can be.

The last stage, “defending” is where people say, “I HAVE changed.” These people are making “the new patterns grow, stick, and become routine over the long haul.” It’s important here to remember that “action is not the same as change… it takes a long time for new thinking to become embedded in the core of your being.” Can people get to this stage in a culture profoundly centered around cheap production, cheap energy, and maximizing profit? I don’t know. It’s difficult for me to distinguish clearly between Doppelt’s “doing” and “defending stages as far as personal behavior. But certainly, if the “defending” part of this stage is its primary characteristic, then this stage would be where people are publicly speaking out about the critical benefits of sustainable thinking and living, and perhaps even spreading the word through teaching and sharing. So perhaps I’m about to enter this stage, as soon as I start handing out business cards? Ha!

Seriously, Doppelt admits that even after years of working on his core beliefs and assumptions, automatic thoughts, and actions, all to become progressively more sustainable, “the effort to continually fend off resistance from others and to surmount obstacles often causes me to consider falling back into unsustainable thinking and behavior.” Luckily, his work is teaching sustainability, so he’s constantly reinforcing sustainable ways. Also, his wife reminds him! It’s always immensely helpful to have a support system, a cheerleader, defender, and comrade when changing one’s ways for the better.

Last, evaluating your stage is vital so that you know what beliefs characterize your present sustainability mindset, which change motivators will help move you forward, and what stages and processes lie ahead. Doppelt writes thoroughly about mechanisms that encourage change appropriate for each stage, but I’ll post about those separately, because this post has grown a tail! But, to pin down your stage, ask yourself these questions: 1- have you taken any steps to protect the climate, natural environment, and social well-being? If no, you are “disinterested.” 2- do you intend to take action to protect the climate, and environment in the next month? In the next 6 months? If yes to the first, you’re “designing;” yes to the second signifies “deliberation.” 3- have you been actively involved for more than 6 months with actions aimed at protecting the climate and environment? A yes here means you’re “defending.” Congrats!!

Thus concludes my post on sustainable thinking. It’s a lot to take in, so I recommend revisiting it a few thousand times. Seriously, didn’t you love it?

I’m clearly exhausted. Just tell me you loved it πŸ™‚