It can be overwhelming to care about climate change. You might get discouraged thinking that you're not doing enough, or that no one cares about the effort you're making. Activism can be large scale, like organising a protest or working for an environmental organisation, but more subtle actions are also effective. Little behaviours might not seem to make a big difference, but new research is investigating the link between social norms and sustainable behaviour. When people think an issue (like caring about climate change) is sufficiently moral, they are more likely to be accepting of behaviour change, and even confrontation about their own behaviours. So far, climate change is not always perceived as an important moral issue, even though it will affect people's lives drastically in the future, and has already. This is why it can be awkward to talk about climate change, and why our society has been slow in making sustainable progress.
Social Norms Do Change
Social psychology research consistently suggests that social norms are important, and we see this in our everyday life in various ways: trends in fashion vary based on your peer group, greetings differ wherever you are in the world, and you might feel a little odd bringing food for lunch that is very different from that around you. Some of this group pressure can be annoying, sure, but it's a great tool that can be harnessed for environmental activism. After all, it was only a generation ago that smoking cigarettes indoors (and even in airplanes!) was commonplace. Now we think it's completely unacceptable- so what norms can we change within our own peer group, and for future generations? Social change and innovation are just as important as scientific research and technological breakthroughs. Even if you're not on the brink of developing the newest renewable energy, you can be on the cutting edge of sustainable social change.
Lead By Example
You may not feel comfortable loudly broadcasting your views, but that's okay. Leading by example is still leadership. If you do your best to practice sustainable habits in your everyday life, people will take notice. Showing your friends that it's ridiculous to litter, or waste water, will help them change their habits. People don't want to be behind the curve, or seen as not acting morally. The more sustainable behavior is normalized, the closer we'll be to achieving system-wide change. Moreover, individual's misperceptions and poor understanding of climate change are some main barriers to social change. You can take the chance to educate your friends about what you're doing and why. Only about 10% of consumers with self-professed pro-environmental attitudes act on them. However, a recent study shows that if societal norms can influence one's personal norms (internalized values that affect behavior), then people will be motivated to change their habits.
Confidence is Key
What if you're worried about being judged for caring more about climate change than your peers? That's totally valid, and may make you want to assimilate into unsustainable behaviours. As with many things, the 'fake it 'til you make it' strategy works here. If you're passionate enough about the environment, others will see the confidence behind your behaviours and respond to it. And if people criticise you for doing what you know is right, so what? You are a part of a global movement for sustainable change, and who knows- those skeptics could be on your team next week.
Hynes, N., & Wilson, J. (2016). I do it, but don't tell anyone! Personal values, personal and social norms: Can social media play a role in changing pro-environmental behaviours?. Technological Forecasting & Social Change, 111349-359.
Steentjes, K., Kurz, T., Barreto, M., & Morton, T. A. (2017). The norms associated with climate change: Understanding social norms through acts of interpersonal activism. Global Environmental Change, 43116-125.
Whitmarsh, L., O'Neill, S., & Lorenzoni, I. (2013). Public engagement with climate change: What do we know and where do we go from here?. International Journal Of Media & Cultural Politics, 9(1), 7-25
Andie Mitchell is a university student from the United States who studies environmental studies and international affairs. She's passionate about ecofeminism, sustainable food systems, and anything else that helps the earth in the fight against climate change.
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