Empowering Citizens to Adopt Environmentally Sustainable Lifestyles

Part One: A Change in Behavior

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Posted: Monday, January 3, 2011 3:19 pm

Part One: A Change in Behavior

This is the first of a monthly four-part series excerpted from chapter 2 of my book Social Change 2.0. It is built around four questions that lie at the heart of any strategy to make a community more environmentally sustainable - the engagement of its citizens. 1) Can we get the citizens in our community to adopt more environmentally sustainable lifestyles? 2) If so, can we get these behavior changes to be sustained over time? 3) If we are able to achieve these objectives, how do we take such an effort to scale? 4) And finally, what are the possibilities that can accrue to our community from achieving this type of pro-environment behavior change and community engagement? This series is based on a decade of social learning and experimentation to answer these questions with some 20,000 people in 25 cities across the country. Enjoy the journey.

In the early 1990s America and the other industrialized countries were waking up to the realization that our environmental problems were not exclusively the result of pollution caused by big business, and that therefore the necessary solutions were not going to come exclusively from governments regulating those businesses.

Through the research I was doing I learned that America, as 5 percent of the planet's population, consumes 25 percent of the planet's natural resources - oil, timber, minerals, among others. And as Americans, we directly consume one third of these resources through our daily lifestyle choices and influence the other two thirds indirectly through the products we buy. And here's the kicker: As Americans, we waste up to 75 percent of what we consume through our lack of awareness and efficiency. Said another way, we waste up to 75 percent of our hugely disproportionate share of the Earth's bounty. The bad news is that as individuals the ways in which we use the planet's natural resources on a daily basis are a major part of the problem. The good news is that if we are a major part of the problem, we can also be a major part of the solution, if we can adopt more environmentally sustainable lifestyle practices.

So we need to change our lifestyles. Simple enough. Earth Day 1990 helped spawn a cottage industry of "how-to" books ranging from 50 to 1,000 things individuals could do to lessen their environmental toll on the planet, and this seemed to be a promising start. But studies were showing that books and media campaigns imploring people were not translating into changing behavior. Yes, we were beginning to leave our newspapers tied in bundles at the curb, but that was just the tip of the iceberg.

To better understand this disconnect between people's growing environmental awareness and their lack of behavior change I began asking everyone I knew and even some I didn't this question: What would help you translate what you know about the environment into new behaviors in your life?

Here's what came back to me:

• Where do I start?

• Which are the important actions?

• How do I implement these actions?

• Does what I do actually make a difference?

I knew that if people were to be a solution, there needed to be good answers to these questions and the frustration underlying them. I was speaking to people of goodwill who wanted to do the right thing. But they were frustrated and questioned whether or not change was really possible. Some had lost ground to cynicism. What was needed was becoming clearer.


I knew I had to develop credible answers to these four questions or I would be wasting my time. I began by organizing the plethora of existing how-to environmental information so it could be more easily acted on. I decided to use a design format we had developed for our Empowerment Workshop. In that training, to help people make personal changes we divided life up into seven areas: relationships, work, body, money, emotions, sexuality, and spirituality. People focused on one area before moving to the next. In each area they developed a vision of what they wished to accomplish and then developed a plan to implement it.

Translating this design framework was straightforward. With the assistance of a colleague, Robert Gilman, we developed a workbook based on the five major areas in which a household impacts the environment - solid waste, energy, water, transportation, and purchasing. We added another section on empowering others so that people could encourage friends and neighbors to make changes, too.

In each of these five topic areas we developed a menu of possible actions. Each action was written as a one-page recipe with the time and materials required, the resources saved, a number indicating its degree of difficulty, and a playful cartoon illustration.

This programmatic approach was a major improvement over a simple list of disconnected actions. But to get people actually to take action would require some form of motivation. Again I turned to our Empowerment Workshop for inspiration. What were the essential elements that motivated people to change? The empowerment tools we offered were certainly important, but they were not motivational. What actually motivated people to change was witnessing and engaging with other people who were changing in front of their eyes. Many workshop participants commented that they had personal growth breakthroughs in this group setting that they would never have had on their own. It was the group format that inspired people to change. Yes, a support group might just be the yeast needed to raise this dough into bread.

I called the support group an EcoTeam and developed basic guidelines for conducting meetings. Different team members would each lead one of the topic meetings every two weeks. At these EcoTeam meetings everyone would share which actions they would take before the next meeting. At the next gathering, they would then report on what they had actually done. They would also tell the group if they had encountered any problems, and if so how they addressed them so others could learn from their experiences. If they wished help in implementing a particular action they were encouraged to ask their teammates for support. They were also asked to take the program seriously by agreeing to be accountable for taking the actions to which they committed themselves.

An environmental behavior-change program was born. I called it EcoTeam: A Six Step Program to Create an Environmentally Sustainable Lifestyle (later changed to the Green Living Handbook). I started introducing the book at conferences and through environmental networks such as the community of Earth Day organizers. People were immediately attracted to it. They liked the program structure, the support system that established accountability for taking action, the easy-to-use recipe format of the actions, and the opportunity to express their environmental values in such a concrete way. EcoTeams began sprouting up all over the place. Within a few months there were more than fifty teams spread across the country, then a hundred.

They continued to proliferate and soon were taking many different forms. They were occurring among friends, in faith communities, workplaces, neighborhoods, and service organizations. The program was adaptable enough to fit into each of these unique cultures.

I also shared the program with international friends and colleagues I had worked with in the large global peace-building project I had organized, the First Earth Run. A number of them ended up asking if they could translate and adapt the workbook to their cultures. I eagerly supported this adaptation process and the program rapidly spread in these countries as well. And as word got out, I started receiving more and more requests from different parts of the globe.


Management guru Tom Peters describes the typical creation process for new ideas as "ready, fire, aim." I had fired and now it was time to aim. This is the hard-work phase of maturing a social innovation. It meant I had to become strategic about what I was doing. Until now I had accomplished whatever I had accomplished with my own money and a small research grant. If I hoped to make any kind of meaningful change I needed to establish an international organization to implement it. I went about creating a non-profit arm to my Empowerment Institute so I could attract philanthropic support, and I called it Global Action Plan for the Earth or GAP for short. Although the means were limited at the moment, the vision was not.

Because I had established a successful track record by mounting the First Earth Run, and because this program struck a chord in society, I was able to secure two six-figure foundation grants. I now had the financing for the "aiming" phase of refining and disseminating this program. It was time to address my next set of "how-to" questions.

• Was this program effective in helping people change their behavior and achieve substantive environmental improvements?

• If so, could these behavior changes be sustained over time?

• What was the best way to disseminate the program?

The questions would take me most of the 1990s to answer.

This was an iterative and slow learning process. Because the program was four months long it took as much as a year, or in some cases two, to find out if a particular strategy was working. We would try out a new behavior change or organizing strategy, make some progress and then it would stall. We would tweak the strategy and have to wait another few months before we could find out if that change was successful. If not, we were back to the drawing board.

With the initial funding I was able to hire staff to help me track results. We developed a pre- and post-program participation survey called a Sustainable Lifestyle Assessment. We created a computer program to calculate the results we got from this assessment and then provided this feedback to participants. Although people were not interested in doing their own calculations, they were willing to fill out these pre- and post-program assessments. On the front end they found the process of assessing the environmental sustainability of their lifestyle fascinating and relevant for deciding which actions they would take. On the back end they wanted to learn what resource savings they had achieved, provided we crunched the numbers for them. This was a win-win because we were eager to learn how effective the program was in achieving measurable behavior change.

The initial test results from the first 200 households were very promising. These households on average reduced their annual solid waste by 40 percent, water use by 32 percent, energy use by 17 percent, vehicle miles traveled by 8 percent, CO2 emissions by 15 percent, and achieved financial savings of $255.

We were very heartened by these results. Because there is so much room for environmental improvement in the American lifestyle, these high numbers made sense intuitively. Having done the calculations ourselves we could vouch for their accuracy, provided that people were filling out the assessments honestly. Several of our funders, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), studied these numbers and our process for crunching the data, and concluded that this data was trustworthy. That said, there was nothing to compare this against. We were blazing a new trail and learning as we went along.

As more people participated in the program, we kept getting consistent results. Eventually we would collect data from 20,000 people with comparable resource and financial savings. The program had passed its first test. It had demonstrated it could help people substantially reduce their environmental footprint.

The next big question was now upon us. Were these reductions in natural resource use being sustained over time? The greatest challenge in the behavior-change world is recidivism. Think weight loss. Would people go back to their old environmental habits in six months or a year or two years? Or would they be able to keep the belt cinched once they reduced their use of natural resources?

My hunch was that they would. My reasoning was that once you develop a new household system, like recycling, it is actually hard to go back to the old system. And people were taking these actions because it was the right thing to do. No one was forcing them. They wanted to act on their values. I would ask people who were now recycling what it was like to go to a place where you couldn't recycle, and the consistent response was a cringe. It was painful for them to throw away recyclable materials. But until I had some real data it was just my speculation - and perhaps wishful thinking.

Because everyone who funded this program wanted to find out if it was a worthwhile investment, there was no lack of opportunity to start answering this question. Over a number of years we conducted seven independent longitudinal studies funded by foundations and government agencies both in the United States and Europe. The most in-depth study was a two-year longitudinal study funded by the Netherlands Ministry of Environment. It was conducted by Paul Harland and Henk Staats of Leiden University's Centre for Environmental and Energy Research.

They studied 150 households who had participated on EcoTeams as part of our sustainable lifestyle program. What they found was that on average these households adopted 26 new pro-environment behaviors as a result of the program. Two years later they had sustained their changes in 19 of these behaviors and continued to improve in seven of them. They had also adopted four new pro-environment behaviors. In other words, not only had they sustained the behavior changes, they had advanced them. In addition, 53 percent of the people in the study transferred what they learned to their workplaces, further leveraging the positive impact of the changes. Based on a thorough literature search, Harland and Staats concluded that our sustainable lifestyle program "was unprecedented in achieving significant and sustainable behavior change." The other studies validated this conclusion.

Having an environmental program that can produce and sustain behavior change was exciting. I was now asked to speak at many conferences and my colleagues around the world were also getting much recognition. The funding for our sustainable lifestyle program was growing. In the Netherlands, the program received more funding from the Ministry of Environment than any other environmental initiative. The program also began winning environmental awards both in America and Europe.

There was now interest in implementing our program coming from local, state, and federal government agencies in the United States. These agencies were increasingly confronting environmental issues that required citizens to adopt behaviors such as conserving water and energy; reducing or eliminating household and lawn chemicals that were polluting local water bodies; and being more efficient in driving to reduce air pollution, traffic congestion, road construction, and greenhouse gases. The director of the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, Lang Marsh, with whom we would work in Portland, stated his agency's problem this way: "Citizen behavior change has been one of our most difficult challenges in advancing environmental protection."

From a systems point of view, the environmental outcomes these government agencies were seeking required a shift from first to second order change solutions. First order change solutions, in this context, addressed the easy-to-reach low-hanging fruit of obvious environmental problems and were focused on regulating easily identifiable polluting companies. Second order change solutions required climbing higher into the tree, so to speak, and were far more complex to implement because they involved getting millions of people to change their lifestyles.

The government's first order change tool of command and control was exactly right for addressing environmental protection when business was the problem. A company could be regulated and fined based on what came out of its smokestack. But when the daily lifestyle of individual human beings became the problem, the government was at a loss for meaningful action. You can't legislate lifestyle change. Financial incentives are not only just marginally effective, but politically difficult to implement. And information campaigns aimed at encouraging citizens to adopt more environmentally friendly lifestyle practices are also only marginally effective for behavior change. The research data on this last strategy are quite emphatic about its limitations.

Sharon Dunwoody, Professor of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin, states:

"When social problems erupt, one classic response of governments and organizations is to wage an information campaign. The goals are often noble ones, the dollars spent gargantuan, and the outcomes all too predictable: Messages seem to change the behavior of some people some of the time, but have almost no discernible impact on most people most of the time. This situation has so discouraged policy-makers in the past that the pattern was given its own dismal label: 'minimal effects.'"

Local and state government agencies needed a better way to create behavior change and our sustainable lifestyle program was the right tool at the right time. As a result, I soon had my first contract. The city of Portland, Ore., having heard about our program from an enthusiastic EcoTeam member and respected civic leader, wanted the program. I remember well the date that the municipal ordinance was passed by the city council providing funding. It was October 16, on my 50th birthday. What a great birthday present!

I had now answered my first two questions in the affirmative. Could this program help people change their behaviors and achieve substantive environmental improvements; and were these behaviors sustained over time? My final question, which had been looming large in my mind but never been answered, was now upon me. Could I scale up this program?

Join me in a month for the next installment.

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