Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Some People Don't Give a Flick

A few years ago, I joined the Green Team at work. We met as a group only bi-monthly, but as individuals, we acted as full-time eco ambassadors in our departments, encouraging and promoting environmentally friendly behaviour and communicating new green initiatives being implemented company-wide. It was a fun and rewarding volunteer role that added some excitement to my job.

I remember feeling pretty inspired when we were given a set of bright, colourful stickers meant to be placed beneath or beside light switches to remind everyone not to leave the lights on in empty rooms. My pet peeves: the private bathrooms (one door, one toilet, one sink, and no shared space - therefore, no need to leave the light on for anyone else) and the mail room / photocopy room. These are rooms that everyone uses multiple times a day but never for longer than a few minutes, with long periods of time passing between uses.

Within a few months of placing the stickers and consistently turning the lights off, people started getting the picture and flicking the light switch back into the off position when they left the rooms. Success! But it's not the stickers alone that did the trick, because at my current workplace, similar reminders have been placed beneath the light switches in the lunch room / photocopy room, and nobody seems to pay attention. Granted, I've only just begun to set the example, and I shouldn't expect anyone to catch on without direct intervention. But it's hard to engage others in conversation around this issue when I overhear people saying things like, "what's going on in here with all the lights off, are we trying to conserve or something?", as though only an energy shortage should encourage us to turn lights off in rooms that aren't in use. Sigh.

The kicker is that unlike the mail room at my old workplace, the lunch room at my current job has three sets of south-facing windows, but nobody bothers to open the curtains in the morning because flicking a switch takes less effort. It's infuriating, because with the curtains pulled back, there is plenty of light! Now, you're probably wondering why I'm making a big fuss over a small issue like this, especially when I'm usually disillusioned when people make small changes that won't amount to much anyway. Well, in this case I'm worried because I'm theorizing a worst-case scenario: not caring to conserve electricity by turning off lights probably goes hand-in-hand with cranking the heat at home over the winter, using a car to get around on a daily basis, and lots of other wasteful behaviours that contribute to the mess we're in. After all, if you can't be bothered to engage in the simple act of turning off the lights, there's no way you have any interest in making changes that demand greater commitment and effort!

So the question is, is it even worth trying to encourage change in people who seem resistant to it?

Photo of light switch used under Creative Commons from Mike (anotherpioneer/flickr).
Photo of window used under Creative Commons from Simon Tong.


  1. Encouraging people is, of course, the right course of action here... just because people are resistant to change doesn't mean we should stop (if anything, it should encourage us to try harder!).

    I think the goal is to make people realize how easy small changes are (despite their initial resistance), and then work on making them realize that medium changes aren't much harder!

  2. This is the big question, are we all in this together or not.
    There's the relation to - why do we recycle?
    And I think there's also a relation to why do we continue to sell cigarettes?
    We lie to ourselves to keep the status quo.
    Our laziness has halted our evolution.

  3. Marc - You're right, if anything we should try harder with more resistant people. However I'm not sure that the barrier here is what you think it is: the woman I overheard didn't seem to think there was any need to conserve electricity. It's not that a small change isn't easy for her - it's that a small change is unnecessary. Or any change. That's what we're up against.

  4. Anonymous - We're not all in this together, and that's the problem. Most people are motivated to move past their laziness and participate in green programs because there's an incentive - saving money. The more you recycle, the small your garbage bin, the less you pay the City (don't know if that's true elsewhere, but it's how the City of Toronto functions). The less you use your air conditioning and heater, the less you pay on your electricity bill. The less you drive, the more you save on gas. If there's no monetary incentive, the average person won't bother, and like you said, we close our eyes to how bad these things are for us - environmental destruction and cigarettes included!

  5. It's sometimes so hard to take the leap of making even small changes, which can seem threatening because they reflect on the need for more fundamental change, and open the door to further uncertainty, maybe, about how we live. I think the process of change at a personal level is mysterious. But I do believe we have to try to keep the struggle going with individuals and small actions, at the same time as at the broader level of policies, advocacy, etc. It's easy to be pessimistic when we feel surrounded by such apparent lack of interest and awareness.

    But I think some of the antidote to that pessimism lies in trying to be sort of compassionate. There is so much fear, so much misinformation, so much incentive to pay attention to trivial matters and deny reality. (I know, because I do it.) People's lives, partly for these reasons, are busy and complex in ways that leave little opportunity for reflection, never mind change. Many institutions of our consumer society propagate misinformation and apathy; ad campaigns that market products for big corporations deliberately do this, and have sophisticated tools and lots of money to do it well.

    Then, too, there are lots of people working on issues that I don't pay much attention to myself, that seem like top priority to them, and those people might despair of my apparent lack of concern on those issues. Obviously, I would argue that none of us should ignore environmental issues, which are in some special sort of category. Nonetheless, there are so many things to be concerned about that it can be overwhelming.

    But I'm not saying that I follow in practice the attitudes that I'm talking about! I get angry and deppressed, too. I mean, really, yes: Turn off the darn lights! Walk! Turn down the heat! Think before you vote! etc. etc.!!! Also, I often let fear of creating a socially awkward situation stand in the way of attempts to make a difference on the individual level. It's a balancing act.

    Sorry, that was very long! But I think a lot about this, and I'm glad you raised the issue.

  6. Melissa - Thanks for your comment. Making the leap from blissful ignorance to small changes is pretty big, you're absolutely right. I see them as small changes because I'm making big changes, so I guess it's all relative.

    You said ad campaigns that market products for big corporations deliberately propagate misinformation and apathy; I'd add to that that they also give the impression that we can buy our way out of any mess. Scary.

    And sure, there are important issues all around us, and no single person can care about them all, let alone do something. That's what contributes to my hopelessness. So much to do. So little time. So few of us. Ugh.

    Anyway, thanks again for the comment. :)