Sometimes I get the feeling that the words “sustainable” or sustainable choices are just another of those words—like “holistic” and “diversity”—that has been so misused and overused that it has become meaningless. One day, I called a good friend in Denmark and invited him to visit for my birthday. He kindly explained that doing so would not be a sustainable choice. In that moment, I suddenly realised that I’m one of those beings on this planet who is not totally engaged, not entirely committed, and not always aware.
I actually grew up with many good examples of living a sustainable lifestyle and making good, sustainable choices. For example, back when my grandpa and I went fishing every week, we would take what we needed and no more. If there were too many fish in the net, we would let them go. Our use of the forest was also sustainable because it was selective. It was for local use, and was done on an appropriate scale. In my childhood garden, I never had to use any type of toxic chemical or artificial fertiliser. Our plants were healthy and had a natural resistance to disease and insects. We would rotate our crops and mix up our plants to encourage diversity and ensure there wasn’t a mono-crop attraction for insects and disease. We would also allow dozens of swallows to build their nests under the eaves of our roof, so no flying insect had a chance of surviving.
Diversity and sustainability are vital to natural systems and the living things we love so much. Though, it’s not always clear to me how these traits translate into good everyday practices. One day I’m teaching my son how to recycle, the next he’s giving us feedback on how unsustainable our grass-cutting machine is—and we are completely baffled!
From talking to parents worldwide during the How People Learn book tour, I’ve realised that like us, most families want to make sustainable choices, but they don’t know how. Personally, I often worry that our family won’t be able to make sustainable choices. Or, I fear that our green living won’t make a difference anyway. However, my biggest concern is that we, as humans, are unaware of many of the choices we should (and could) be making and that sometimes our brains are simply unable to grasp the long-term impact we are having. It is clear from the research that humans simply lack the collective will to address sustainability issues. This is because of the way our brains have evolved and operate.
According to psychologist Conor Seyle, director of research at the One Earth Future Foundation: “Humans are very bad at understanding statistical trends and long-term changes.” He adds, “We have evolved to pay attention to immediate threats. We overestimate threats that are less likely but easier to remember, like terrorism, and underestimate more complex threats, like climate change.” Essentially, our brains have evolved to filter information rapidly and focus on what is immediately important to our survival. Our brains naturally focus more on immediate threats and opportunities. That’s why we can easily recall where to find food and shelter for ourselves and our offspring. However, these same functions are less useful in our modern reality. After a busy and exhausting day, we can simply go to the hypermarket and rush through to find what each family member needs for the next day or week. So, yes, the human brain values the present above the future (search for “hyperbolic discounting” for more details). The human brain cares most about just a few generations of family members, and it tends to believe that someone else will deal with the crisis (research “the bystander effect” for more info).
The good news is that our biological evolution has made us capable of mental time travel. So, we can predict complex problems, identify the actions and solutions required to solve them, as well as plan for the long term. Research has revealed that these capacities sometimes break down when large-scale collective action is needed. As is the case with sustainability and making sustainable choices. But in small groups, it’s a completely different story. In fact, a family unit can be a perfect example, in my opinion. I know many schools are doing great work, and I saw brilliant projects at The Teacher Network conference last year, but, again, school is collective work. It is temporary and simply not enough.
Here are ten simple ways in which you and your children can make sustainable choices:
- Focus on daily decisions that are within your reach, like driving and flying less. There are great apps in the US that facilitate carpooling for kids—check GoKid, for example.
- Change what you eat. You don’t have to become a vegetarian or vegan to make a difference. You could simply cut your meat consumption in half. When shopping for groceries, buy local food to support your local farming community and avoid shipping.
- Change what you buy. Decide that you do not want to be part of the hectic pace of fast fashion.
- Turn lights and electrical items off when not in use and teach your children to do the same.
- Invest in reusable drink containers. Your children could personalise them and even create personalised coffee mugs for family members as birthday gifts.
- Grow your own food. Creating a family garden—even just a very small one on the kitchen windowsill—will be very useful, but it will also teach your children the value of growing their own food.
- Avoid disposable, single-use items. Be aware that your brain will want to go for the easy, convenient choice in the moment, which is to take a plastic bag. So, consciously choose to keep your reusable bags with you at all times and teach your children long-term thinking for a long-lasting impact.
- Recycle as a family. Make it a habit. Set up a family recycling station in your home. Children are creative, so they could imagine they are on the moon and this is a high priority habit to establish.
- Reduce water use. Teach your children to take shorter showers and turn off the water when brushing their teeth. Check online for an hourglass or five-minute timer. It can be used both for showers and for brushing their teeth.
- Continue to learn together and build new habits. Twenty years ago, humans were concerned about health issues and parents were buying hygiene-related books. Today, we face different issues, so we should help ourselves and our kids to level up. For daily sustainability activities, you can also check out Bonus 2 in the How People Learn book—and don’t forget to share with us how the brain challenges worked for you and your children!
Do good. Influence others to do good. Let others influence you to do good.
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