Being on good (climate) behavior: We need to ritualize eco-friendly decisions

Being on good (climate) behavior: We need to ritualize eco-friendly decisions

Claire Goldberg

I think about the climate a lot. Better yet, I worry about the climate a lot. And, after almost a year of Global Environmental History (GEH), I have very good reason to be worried. Unless something drastic changes, we will be experiencing the grave consequences of our destructive environmental choices within our lifetimes. Oceans will warm and rise, biodiversity will be reduced, species will go extinct, and we will be pounded by natural disaster after natural disaster. 

This is all information I know and care deeply about, and yet, I still find myself making choices that make me part of the problem. I drive often, I use plastic cups sometimes, I eat meat, etc. Horace Mann has provided me with an enriching climate education. Why isn’t that enough to force me to make eco-friendly choices? 

This is a question that my GEH class discussed a few months ago. One student in my class said that solving climate change was a matter of getting information to enough people. “If only everyone knew about the problem,” they said, “then we’d be able to solve it.” Immediately, a sea of frenzied hands shot up into the air to counter this claim. The whole class quickly came to the consensus that the climate crisis is not just about information. Many people, like myself, have the information and continue to do the wrong thing all the time.

Even with the right information, we often enlist the “it’s just one cup” mentality. When I’m using a plastic Starbucks cup, I calm my worries by convincing myself that it is a matter of proportions. “This is a global crisis,” I tell myself. “This is one cup in a global crisis. What difference could it actually make?” 

To justify my bad actions, I convince myself that my actions don’t actually matter. Other times, I justify my actions by circumventing responsibility. “The government should really be subsidizing electric cars and sustainable fashion,” I say. “They should be making eco-friendly choices easier.” These justifications are lies and I know it, so recently I tried to adopt a new, more productive train of thought.

The solution to this dilemma is not to suddenly believe that my plastic cup is the end of the world — it’s not. I know very well that a single plastic cup will not determine whether or not Manhattan is flooded. But, I’ve realized that it is not about the cup at all; not exactly, at least. It’s about how to commit to making decisions just because we know that they are the right thing to do, even if they appear to be inconsequential. It’s about doing good deeds because they are good. 

Instead of dismissing the consequences of our individual actions, we have to ritualize good climate behavior. We have to ritualize making daily efforts to protect the environment in the same way that we ritualize brushing our teeth for sanitary purposes, voting for democratic purposes, or practicing religious rituals, like my keeping Kosher, for spiritual purposes. Sure, it might be easier to not make these choices, but we still make them because they are habits. Our list of ritualized actions is long, and we need to add eco-friendly actions to that list. 

This is how I have been thinking about making eco-friendly choices, and for the first time, it has been working. I try to ritualize turning lights off every time I leave a room in order to preserve electricity. To train myself to use less electricity, I made a mark with red tape on my shower handle of the moderate water temperature I would like to use for each shower. I have also made a habit of carrying around a reusable cup to prevent using plastic bottles. What was once an annoying extra object to carry around has now become natural. These are a few of the small things I have been trying to make daily rituals, so that I don’t have to think about it as much, and I encourage everyone to do the same.

Making eco-friendly choices can’t feel like a sacrifice every time, or else these choices won’t be made. They must be subconscious, natural, and routine. We all have to take the knowledge we acquire about which choices are good, which are bad, and we have to incorporate them into parts of our daily routine, even if it takes an uncomfortable adjustment. 

Each time we perform these rituals, subconsciously or not, we will be reminding ourselves of the importance of protecting our planet. Though ritualizing eco-friendly behavior may not solve climate change, it will empower us to recognize that our choices do matter and that we all have a role to play in combating the climate catastrophe.