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Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Your Attention Please!

"Something I dislike even more than getting coffee in a takeaway cup, is getting one with a lid on it. I don’t drink through them, and they go straight in the rubbish bin. On those rare occasions when I succumb to the temptations of convenience and order a takeaway coffee, I usually remember to ask the person making the coffee not to put a lid on. But every now and then, I get distracted and remember at the precise second that the lid is going on – too late, the lid has got a splash of coffee on it and is on it’s way to the landfill along with millions of others.

Sometimes the simplest of things can undermine our efforts to lead a more eco-friendly life. One of the most common of these is that we simply forget. We can have the commitment and motivation to do the right thing, and all the resources and knowledge we need, but sometimes it just doesn’t occur to us at the time. Modern lifestyles which place a premium on multi-tasking and almost being obliged to be busy are perfect breeding grounds for forgetfulness. We have a limited capacity for what we can have our attention on at any given time, so often considerations of the environmental impacts of our behaviours fall by the wayside.

Forgetfulness is often cited as a barrier to engaging in pro-environmental behaviours. For example, in a study of common barriers to sustainable behaviours in a Tasmanian community, people were asked what stops them turning off their appliances at the wall when not it use. The 2nd most common response was “I don’t think of it”. This is important information to know, as it tells us that we don’t just need to convince people that a behaviour is a good idea, and to provide them with the knowledge and tools they need, but we also need to find a way of making it top of mind at the critical time that the behaviour is to be undertaken.

A key factor which seems to get in the way of remembering to make eco-friendly decisions is our propensity to engage in habitual behaviours (see Wake-Up Call July 2008 for an overview of habits). Research tells us that as many as 50% of our daily behaviours are habitual, whereby we make decisions on a kind of auto-pilot. For behaviours which we have done before, there is no need to waste precious mental resources in “re-making” the decision. Instead we often take mental shortcuts which allow information to fit into our pre-existing beliefs. An interesting article about Mindfulness And Sustainable Behavior discusses this issue, and describes a situation where a shopper may read a label which says a product is “all natural”. “The shopper may not take the time to further examine the product and the real meaning behind its claim of ‘all natural,’ particularly if he or she is under time pressure or is multitasking.” If that person has already decided that “natural is good”, then the labeling of the product makes it easy for them satisfy that preference without investing too much attention.

So the question is, how do we ensure that people have the presence of mind to undertake eco-friendly behaviours? One simple method is to provide prompts, or reminders, at the point at which the behaviour is to be undertaken. Community-based Social Marketing (CBSM) guru Doug McKenzie-Mohr discusses the use of prompts at length. One of the most successful methods he describes is the use of “shelf-talkers”, small signs on shop shelves which remind shoppers of the eco benefits of certain products. This simple, yet effective, tactic has repeatedly yielded demonstrable increases in the purchase of environmentally beneficial products. Similarly, providing prompts and reminders has proven effective at reducing littering.

Another possible approach in countering unsustainable habitual behaviours is to change the context in which those behaviours occur. The authors of Mindfulness And Sustainable Behavior sum up the situation by saying that “we either must change the attentional practices in our culture to be more encouraging of mindfulness, or change the available choices so people can function more sustainably while on autopilot.” Given that people are likely to continue undertaking habitual behaviours for the foreseeable future, the latter approach appears to be the most promising. Indeed, changes in the conditions which support unsustainable behaviours have been found to be effective. Many offices have adopted a policy of moving rubbish bins from each desk, instead placing them in a central point, while making recycling bins more easily accessible. In most cases this leads to a substantial reduction in waste going to landfill – in fact a similar approach in Ontario claims at least 50% waste reduction.

No matter how committed we are personally to making sustainable choices, it’s good to have a helping hand from the world around us – now if we can just get coffee shops to start asking us if we really need a lid!

Exercise of the Month – Helping yourself to remember

A simple one this month, following on from the feature article above about remembering things.

1. Think of some pro-environmental behaviours which you often simply forget to undertake, or just can’t seem to get in the habit of doing.

2. If it is a habitual behaviour

a. try to identify the external conditions which hold the non-preferred behaviour in place. (e.g. Is the landfill bin in easier reach than the compost bucket? Is the bike in the garden shed out the back, making it hard to access for those short trips?)

b. find a way to disrupt those conditions which support non-preferred behaviour. (e.g. move the compost bucket, or make the bike easier to get to than the car)

3. If it is simply something you forget to do, consider ways in which you could remind yourself. (e.g. could you put a re-usable shopping bag in the front seat of the car, or in your handbag? Could you install a shower timer?)

More tips like these can be found at

In an ideal world, our external environment would support our intentions to do the right thing. But there are also plenty of opportunities to support ourselves. "

Source: Awake provides psychology-based services to support the development of sustainable behaviour in individuals, groups and organisations. Visit for more info

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Important Lessons from the Bible

Why Jesus came:
"that the world might be saved through him"
John 3:17

Who Jesus is going to use to save the world:
"For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God."
Romans 8:19

Our role on earth:
"The LORD God put the man in the Garden of Eden to take care of it and to look after it."
Genesis 2:15

The Five Pillars of A Christian Theology of Sustainability

1. God is the creator, sustainer and redeemer of creation.

2. Covenantal Stewardship (we have a covenant with God as stewards of the earth).

3. The creation-fall-redemption paradigm (God made a good world; human failure broke the relationships between god, man and creation; Christ provides hope for all creation).

4.Bodily resurrection(we will rise with bodies, not as spirits)

5.New Creation (a new Heaven and new Earth refers to a renewal and an earthing of heaven, not starting over).

Adapted from When Enough is Enough: A Christian Framework for Environmental Sustainability, Edited by R.J. Berry, Published by Inter-Varsity Press, 2007, Nottingham p43+