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Make Sustainability a Habit

July 1, 2011

Awesome resource links at the end!

If changing human behavior were easy, we’d have a carbon neutral global society, body mass indexes within normal range, and financial resilience.  We’d have wealth, good looks and a sustainable earth.

But, generally, we don’t.  Why?

The answers are many but, for starters, let’s look at the success factors behind change and how they impact our striving for personal, career, company, societal and Sustainability goals.  I’m speaking of the concept of Feedback Loops, also known sometimes as Virtuous Cycles.  Each of us is a system, nested within other systems (family, company, society, etc.). Each of these systems is comprised of multiple interacting feedback loops.  Feedback Loops work when they are fundamentally intact and well maintained.  They don’t when they aren’t.  But they can be fixed if you understand where and how they need fixing.

The Eco-consumer’s Broken Feedback Loop

Presently, the typical feedback loop of consumer thinking is: “The economy is shaky, it’s not a good time to invest in unproven enviro-alternatives, I may be okay anyway, the government’s taxation stance is fickle from year to year, and I’m just one person, so I’ll wait until I have more clear direction or can find a shining example to follow, or feel enough pain to motivate me to adapt”.

In other words, although the message is clear and it’s rather widely known that by mid-century we’ll require the equivalent of three Earths’ resources to sustain our projected 7-billion person world society, we nonetheless short-circuit our feedback loop thinking with short-term, emotional, pocketbook-level rationalizations. The predictable outcome: inadequate results, slippage, and in some views, looming catastrophe.  This is not a virtuous cycle, to say the least.

What a Well Tuned Feedback Loop Looks Like

Let’s look at the elements of a successful, intact feedback loop.  You can apply it to any situation to learn where there are leaks or breaks, make repairs, and improve results.

  1. Evidence. Measure the behavior you want to change. Sounds simple, right? But how do you know you’re measuring the right thing? Are you measuring CO2/KWH? Gallons H2O per capita? Calories burned? What?  Measure the right thing – constantly over time.
  2. Relevance. Interpret the data and give it meaning. Just knowing I can measure my carbon footprint isn’t enough.  I have to know how I rank relative to either my own pocketbook goal, or some trendline, or some legal standard, or other interpretation. Fortunately, the price of measuring just about anything is dropping to levels where we can cheaply and easily get good data.  Ask anyone who owns an iPhone, Nike shoes, or GPS.   Chances are there are free and commercially available measurement and interpreting solutions out there already, no matter what you’re seeking to measure and interpret.
  3. Consequence. Fit the meaningful data into a larger goal or purpose to properly motivate action. Let’s say I want to consume energy at some rate below the per capita average, and I get to enjoy the positive consequences in terms of pocketbook savings, energy independence, and other worthwhile consequences in which I am emotionally invested. Help me measure it, interpret it, change my behavior, celebrate success, track corrective action, and celebrate that improvement.
  4. Action.  Empower people to act on their new-found motivation, stimulating the creation of new data. Measure and appreciate behavioral improvement to stimulate habit formation.  It can take up to 2o instances of measured improvement for a habit to become ingrained in an average adult (half that number for younger people), so keep at it.  After a month of measuring anything daily, even with the occasional skipped day, you’ll be there.

To accelerate a habit, though, it helps to socialize it among your close contacts.   Remember, too, that people buy pleasure, not prevention.  This has implications for how you talk to yourself about it.

We cannot rely on the best brains and systems thinking to tune our personal feedback loops critical to personal, business environmental sustainability.  It’s an inside job.  It is up to each of us to get started.  I hope this post helps you get started.

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