It wouldn’t be a New Year without talk of New Year’s resolutions. Many people contemplate gaining this new habit or losing that one and a lot of time is spent planning and thinking. Habits—good, bad or otherwise—are our guidance systems and attempt to keep us on track. Changing that track can be a challenge. Though…it’s not impossible.
If individually we have habits, so too, do I believe that collectively, we also have habits. That is to say, our culture has habits. Truthfully, any culture has habits but it is mine that I have wondered about more recently. And in wondering about habits, it occurred to me that in some ways, it’s no surprise our society continues to pull resources from dwindling supplies while spewing out waste. It’s our habit to do this.
Chris Jordan, a compelling visual artist, attempts with his art to show what the scope of individual actions in Western Culture look like when counted together. I watched him recently in a TED talk and his images demonstrate our culture’s habits rather uniquely. One that he shared is of paper cups which, as we know, are used mainly for hot beverages—typically coffee. The number used in a day is so vast at 40 million, that he couldn’t capture it on a canvas. So, instead, he captured 15 minutes worth of cups—410000. To understand a day’s worth of cups he took that 15 minute image and combined it with multiples of itself and then provided a scale reference—a couple of people and the Statue of Liberty—all completely dwarfed by cups. The image is hard to fathom.
It’s an interesting exercise contemplating our collective habits. One that comes to mind is that, coffee cups aside, most of us recycle. But I think most of us also still put out some garbage for pick up. Why would we still have that habit? As I see it, we continue to have items come into our possession that we deem as garbage (another way put: items are created that can pretty much only be garbage when we are finished with them). Secondly, we think it is okay to put garbage out at the curb to be taken away somewhere. ….well, to be honest, I don’t believe that everyone thinks this is okay. But as a society we continue to accept single use items or inferior quality through built-in obsolescence. The result of which is that items quickly become useless. It wasn’t always this way.
As a group or society, one habit that goes both ways (though mostly one way) is recycled paper. Despite its availability, as a society, we mostly don’t use recycled paper. One way I know this is the number of brands of paper that I see that are 100% recycled compared to non-recycled when I walk down store aisles. It’s the same with paper towel, toilet paper and copy paper. Off the top of my head, for toilet paper, it’s easily 6 to 1 against. What does this say about our concerns for forests? We have an option but as a society or culture, our habit is that most don’t take it. (Silently, are we therefore agreeing that it’s okay to flush trees down toilets?)
It’s true that the process of recycling paper isn’t without its problems but I’d sooner see us sort that out, or better, go tree-free, than cut all our forests down and then have to figure it out. With our current practices, once a forest is cut, humans may be able to replant trees (and even that is debatable) but we cannot re-grow a forest. Those replanted trees become a form of agriculture complete with pesticides, herbicides, other chemicals and neat tidy rows. This is not the home it once was for the animals and birds, bugs and other plants that once lived there.
Individually as we enter a new year, many of us are planning to make changes in our habits which will, if successful, result in positive changes in our personal lives. How will we do as a culture? Will our personal habit changes help to sway our society’s habits towards being less harmful to the planet? Will you, next time, select an option that someone has endeavoured to provide that is a little more ‘green’? Will you create a new option that others can use?
Habits are powerful forces in our lives. They can keep us safe as a seat belt protects us in a car crash. Or, they can harm us and the other occupants of our home (earth). When we take into consideration that we are a very large group when counted together, the result of our individual habits can be immense; for bad or for good.
Planning any new ‘green’ habits for 2012? Please share them with us in the comments below.