Monday, July 14, 2008

On Making Changes, and Not

I have been thinking a lot about change lately...personal change, cultural change, political change. I'm not the only one. Barack Obama is not only promising change, but in banning donations from lobbyists, running a radically different campaign and now, as the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, pushing the Democratic National Convention to change fund raising strategies as well. All around, I am learning of people who are changing their habits in an effort to reduce their carbon footprint, from riding public transportation to learning how to find and prepare organic whole foods on the cheap. At home, we are making changes, too, many of which I've chronicled here.

During the spring, I attended the Center for Earth Leadership's Agent of Change workshop along with 15 other Portlanders who feel called "to help create a sustainable future." We learned about theories and strategies for citizen-led cultural change, drawing especially from the ideas outlined in The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell. I thoroughly enjoyed participating in this workshop, having the opportunity to meet this inspirational group and especially Jeanne and Dick Roy, longtime Earth activists and founders of the Northwest Earth Institute and the Center for Earth Leadership. I'm am now an official Agent of Change, so mind your step or I may be forced to us my new secret powers on you!

Change is hard, even when we feel profoundly moved to make a change, even when our collective conscience cries out, "Change NOW!" taking up a new habits challenges most of us. So, how do we do it? When we come to the realization that for the sake of our home on Earth, for the sake of our children's children, or simply for the sake of ourselves, we must make changes, what do we do?

Recently, I learned of the Japanese philosophy of kaizen, which emphasizes making continuous, small improvement throughout all aspects of one's life. Since World War II, this philosophy has particularly informed Japanese business practices and can be credited with the success of manufacturers such as Toyota, but its principals can be applied to our personal lives as well. Reading a recent New York Times article on the subject, I was struck by one passage in particular:
Rather than dismissing ourselves as unchangeable creatures of habit, we can instead direct our own change by consciously developing new habits. In fact, the more new things we try — the more we step outside our comfort zone — the more inherently creative we become, both in the workplace and in our personal lives.

But don’t bother trying to kill off old habits; once those ruts of procedure are worn into the hippocampus, they’re there to stay. Instead, the new habits we deliberately ingrain into ourselves create parallel pathways that can bypass those old roads.

“The first thing needed for innovation is a fascination with wonder,” says Dawna Markova, author of “The Open Mind” and an executive change consultant for Professional Thinking Partners. “But we are taught instead to ‘decide,’ just as our president calls himself ‘the Decider.’ ” She adds, however, that “to decide is to kill off all possibilities but one. A good innovational thinker is always exploring the many other possibilities.”

As I have been consciously making changes in my family's consumption habits, I have noticed myself thinking more and more out-of-the-box. As I eschew the new, I must come up with creative ways to re-purpose what we already own or can find used. Instead of seeing individual problems that need solving, I find myself examining and continually re-jiggering entire systems.

For example, my husband has been working incredibly long hours for the last six months, which has thrown our whole food system into disarray--the old system, from meal planning to grocery buying to meal prep--was disrupted. For a while, I just reacted to each of these aspects individually, with little success. I slowly began to recognize that the whole system needed adjusting and the changes I've been making for the last several months--planning for meals months in advance rather than a week or two, buying meat in bulk, ordering groceries from Azure standard, switching to even more whole, seasonal, and organic food--have been conscious attempts to make our food system align with our values and our lifestyle. I have had to step outside the conventional system and learn (or in some cases, remember from my childhood) "new" ways of doing things.

Another recent find on making continual improvement focuses on the change a typical American family make do over the next decade to reduce its carbon imprint to zero. (This is a great issue of Yes! magazine, by the way. Note all the other climate solution articles listed on the left side of the page.) According to this carbon footprint calculator, my family's current carbon footprint is about half that of the typical American household, largely due to the fact that neither my husband nor I commute to work. Easy access to excellent local food and our temperate climate help us keep our footprint small, too. I am embarrassed to admit our electricity consumption is 112% of the American average according to the Riot 4 Austerity calculator. Anticipate some posts this summer about our new electricity diet, along with some kvetching about our home's lack of decent cross ventilation.

Paradoxically, while we often find making changes in attitude and personal habits difficult, even the most environmentally conscious among us struggles with not changing to the latest model mobile phone or with letting go of the conviction that only a major remodel to our home will make us happy. Beth Meredith and Eric Storm, the green home designers who wrote the latter piece, came to our home a few years ago when I was convinced that a major remodel was essential to my future happiness. Truly, I did not believe I could survive life with two children and no dishwasher. (Wonder of wonders, I have. Thankfully, Mike took up the bulk of dish washing when Luc arrived.) We have never been able to afford the remodel and while I still really want an automatic dishwasher and a gas stove in my kitchen, and wish my kids could have separate bedrooms someday, I generally find myself feeling grateful for all we have rather than wishing we had more.

So, how can we, as individuals "Save the Earth?" We can make conscious, incremental changes, that stretch us, but don't stress us. We can develop a list of intentions and remind ourselves of them when we feel that itch to buy something new or make major "improvements" that require lots of energy and resources. We can use a few of the 86,400 seconds we have every day to count our blessings. We can't all run for president, reduce our carbon footprint by 90% in the next year, or grow our own food, but we can all start with something small and with our hearts and minds open, reach for something big.


equa yona(Big Bear) said...

Thanks for the encouragement on incremental change. Our green efforts were knocked askew when we moved to South Dakota. I posted about in May I think. SD may not be the LEAST green state in the Union, but it must be close. I have to drive 65 miles to get to the nearest recycling center, which defeats the purpose. Ah well, we are adjusting and saving up our recycling for the occasional touristy/save your sanity r&r jaunts.

fasenfest said...

Thank you always for thinking and working so hard at imagining solutions. I'm with you, small and steady is a good tactic because so much of what we want to change is emeshed with the status quo of our societal norms. From working a full-time job (with overtime), to lures of home improvements to sending our kids off to college to become, in essence, the new consumers of our relentlessly hungry economy, our attachments to old patterns are sticky and systemic. Facing off with the ways change is complicated by habit and, in some cases, sheer economic survival, is like walking back in time to find how it all got so convoluted. You and I (and so many others) have talked about the appeal of the large extended family and the wisdom of farm living - at least in it's most idealized form. Those conversations are always about small scale systems and intact family and community ethics regarding thrift and stewardship. But how do we get there? How really do we go backward when so much of what has been ushered in eschews the sense and sensibility of that ethic? And do humans even want it anymore? Save for the clear breakdown of our current model I always think folks were kinda happy to lessen their work load. Now we are willing to take back that work, own that work, to stop outsourcing that work and food and basic needs. But then you and I feel overwhelmed at time by the way our best made plans come face to face with modern living. Me, with a family that only marginally gets why I work so hard along with the easy lure of the "good life" I suspect, and I read, that it is the same for you at times. But I have always appreciated the effort and heart and look forward to the continued contact and fellowship.
So.....tomato fest 2008 coming soon. And hope to see you at the homesteader hoe down on Sat. Sept. 6th.

In respect, Harriet