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How Do You Get People To Change Their Lifestyles?

Girl in Timbauba Brasil

On Saturday, hundreds of thousands of people got together all over the world to spread the word:  “350.”  According to, “Scientists say that 350 parts per million CO2 in the atmosphere is the safe limit for humanity.”

This was, in essence, an awareness campaign.  I believe the idea behind it is that when the number 350 is in everyone’s heads, we can then take action to lower the CO2 in our atmosphere.

But does awareness really lead to action?

Behavior Change

Human minds are incredibly complex.  There are fields of study, and careers of work, devoted to figuring out how to change our minds.  And some also focus on how to change our actions.

Every public health campaign has been created this way – usually each one is tested and retested on focus groups before we ever see it.  And every large advertising campaign is even more rigorously tested to find out the most effective way to change our actions. Every film, every documentary, every television show – they all are tested and focused on a particular target audience.

There are various theories surrounding the stages people go through before they change the way they do things.  The most basic is this:

  1. Awareness
  2. Contemplation
  3. Preparation
  4. Action
  5. Maintenance

At each of these stages, people need some instigating factor that gets them to the next level.  It could be a talk with a friend, a change in your life, a new action campaign, or any number of things.  And of course this is just an outline.  Sometimes you skip one of the levels, or they are a bit out of order, or you fall back to a prior level before moving forward – but this is generally pretty much the way things generally happen.

At least at the moment, the 350 movement stops at #1: awareness.  I don’t know if there is a plan that goes beyond this, but would be a shame to lose all that work, all that momentum.

Deep Sea 350

Do You Have To Change Your Life Entirely?

This brings me to a couple of responses to what I wrote a few days ago:  “Do You Have To Change Your Life Entirely In Order To Stop Climate Change?” Both Chile and Arduous argue that yes, we all do have to change entirely in order to stop climate change.

I believe they are right.  We have a lot to do, and it’s either too late or almost too late to turn back around and go in the right direction. But I also believe this:

  1. People are inherently different, and the way that they create change and respond to need is different. And whether they start with their own lifestyles, or go into politics, or help people in the developing world lift themselves out of poverty without destroying the planet as we did, or some other way – it doesn’t matter, it only matters that we all start.
  2. Fear often paralyzes people. Many people become very overwhelmed by fear, and end up doing nothing.  Climate change is big, each of us is small.  We can’t change everything, so why change anything?
  3. Even if we can’t turn our CO2 around as quickly as we need to, we still have to turn it around as soon as is physically possible… or things will get exponentially worse yet.
  4. It does not matter what motivates people to change, only that they do. The world has other problems in addition to climate change.  If Red Icculus changes because he wants to be more independent from the system and to provide a good life for his children, or if Maybelline changes her lifestyle in order to be more frugal and personally sustainable, or Deb G starts changing her life to protect her body from toxics in plastics, or someone else is afraid GMOs will fundamentally change the world and so eats local, organic food… isn’t that a good thing?  Does it matter why people change, or only that they do change?

From Awareness To Action

How many people do you know who want to change the way they live their life, for one reason or another, but who just never seem to get around to it?  I know a lot.  It’s hard to change your life.  We all resist it.

So how do we bring people from awareness to action, and then from action to maintenance (because one action isn’t enough, we have to sustain ourselves and make those changes constant)?

I spend a lot of time thinking about this when I write blog articles, when I do my work at my job, when I talk with people throughout my day.  While I wish that people would stop what they are doing now and make an entire switch in their lifestyles, I have come to understand that this is not human nature.  I think about how I started to change the way I do things:  I started with driving less, eating locally, gardening, sending letters, protesting at protest rallies.  Then I went further, and then further still.

Awareness can be overwhelming.  Fear can be debilitating. But we cannot let ourselves become overwhelmed and debilitated, because for one thing, that is not a good quality of life, and for another, those feelings get us nowhere. There are a lot of people talking about change but not really doing anything about it – and maybe feeling guilty that they aren’t doing anything. I believe the best way to handle this feeling of being overwhelmed and debilitated is to just start somewhere, anywhere, big or small.  From there, we can support one another and continue on our journey toward change.

So I do not believe you get people to act with more fear.  Instead, you encourage people to concentrate on one action at a time, and you encourage people to start where they are most comfortable starting.  Generally that means starting close to home:  with health, saving money, reducing toxins, and so on.  Because starting somewhere is better than not starting at all, and once people start to change it is easier for them to keep going, especially with encouragement.

Once we do start to change our lifestyles, the way to maintain and sustain that change is to build a support network:  a blog, a group of friends, a book club, whatever it takes to surround each other with support.

It’s not as straight of an answer as I’d like, but humans are not simple creatures, and there are no easy answers when it comes to inspiring people to change their lifestyles.

What Do You Think?

We know we need to get a lot of people to change the way they do things, and the way governments and corporations do things.  If you have an alternative way to reach people who aren’t yet doing anything to change their lifestyles, and to provoke them into sustained action, I would love to hear it!

And if you haven’t taken a look at the many 350 photos taken this past weekend, you should – they’re quite inspiring.  What do you think they should do next, though, to capture that awareness and turn it into action??

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14 comments to How Do You Get People To Change Their Lifestyles?

  • One reason that I keep reading your blog Melinda is that I like and agree with your approach. You are part of my support network. :)

    I am really afraid that the predominant lifestyle at the moment, particularly in the U.S., is an addictive behavior. I hope that we won’t have to hit rock bottom as a society to change (it will really be too late at that point), but I don’t have a lot of hope of that not happening. The only other way that change happens is, I think, when something captures someone’s imagination and they can imagine that the choice they make will make a difference (kind of like when I saw the lung of a smoker versus a healthy lung when I was in middle school, yuck!). And eventually they can see that it makes a difference. It all takes time. I hope that I am wrong.

    Because I’m not a confrontational type person, all I can do is keep to the changes I’ve made in my life as much as possible and not be afraid to talk to others about what I believe…

  • Interesting post, i like the steps along the way to change…

    I think the idea of starting where people are at and giving them easy things to do is a great way to start but there has been research done that shows that campagins using this approach lead to people thinking that’s all they need to do. ‘Hey, yeah we recycle and we catch the bus where we can, so we’re fine, no need to worry’….. I think there is a need for aspiration, for people to need to see that those steps, recycling and cutting down on car use are just the beginning…..

    Support networks are very useful and can help people move beyond the first steps….

  • Personally, I’m a goal-oriented person. I would like someone, somewhere to say “this is your family’s fair share”. Then I can work to live within my means. Just trying to reduce my electricity usage by so many percent per year is fine, my PUD says I use less electricity than my neighbors, but at what point can I say that I can really stop now and work on other things? How far off am I now? Is it something I should still be working on, or should I put my efforts somewhere else? I think that if people had a goal to work for rather than some amorphous “reduce, reuse, recycle” there would be a major wake-up moment and a feeling of “man, what an energy pig I am. I really need to do something about it.” And then be able to MEASURE it.

  • I agree Melissa. If I think back about two/three years when we started getting serious about eco-changes we started with environmental cleaners and recycled paper towel. That’s it. Now, such a short time later I have vinegar and water, NO paper towel (cloth only please!), and I’m moving to reduce plastic and energy consumption (all other purchases have been made ecofied). I’m up to writing letters to MLA’s and such now. CRAZY.

    So yes- although now I feel like switching to cloth bags is a small small tiny step, that’s where I started… and it has led me to a place where I can be with the bigger changes- like petitioning my government.

  • It’s a difficult thing. I don’t like to preach to people because I hate when someone approaches me in that way. I simply lead by example. It seems to work and it’s so much less confrontational. A couple of examples:

    When I started in my current office, it was an eco nightmare. There was so much waste. About 6 months ago I started a green waste collection to help build my compost at home. I asked everyone in the office to save their compostable food waste and coffee grounds and I’d collect it once a week. People were interested in why I was doing it and it gave me an in to talk about food security (growing a garden) and diverting as much waste from landfill as possible.

    Another lady in the office is now collecting recyclables so we have almost halved the waste.

    My nest big push is to stop the huge usage of plastic plates. When I arrived, everyone would use a plastic plate and cutlery and throw it out each day. At office morning teas the amount of trash was horrendous. I started by bringing my own plate and cup and refusing the plastic. People wanted to know why I was doing that. It seems shocking that people don’t understand that we can’t be a throw-away society, but my office is living proof that people are really quite clueless. I have since started buying plates at the thrift store so that we have plenty to use on social occasions. Sadly some people still pick a plastic plate over one they need to wash, but it’s a process and as long as I continue to see improvements I feel like I’m at least doing something.

  • I still think living by example is the best way to testify to the masses. I don’t think you can go out and change peoples’ minds overnight.

  • I think we all need to change (in the western world), but in different ways. Being proscriptive will just create resistance.

    What the 350 movement is showing, though, is that humanity is slowly moving past the denial stage. We’re now starting to accept (most of us) that Yes, We Have A Problem. That’s a HUGE leap.

    Next step is deciding how to approach change, in an equitable and balanced way, that will be fair for as many people as possible.

    If it were me, I’d tackle what I call the Big Three first – oil, coal and cows. They constitute, depending on how you tally it, anything up to 80% of emissions (possibly more). Deal with them, and we’re far more than halfway there.

    So we need change from the top down, as well as the bottom up. I think people will be very happy to change what supplies their electricity (e.g. dealing with the oil problem), as long as it continues to be supplied. But not every country has the renewable capability of New Zealand (where I live). And we definitely will need to power down a LOT.

    Oil is a major issue, because the transport infrastructure we used to have was destroyed as cars took over, and needs rebuilding. And we’re currently very oil intensive in our food supply. All this needs to be addressed. Sustainability isn’t just about shopping less – these are major issues that no politician has yet talked about. They’re too scared to, I think.

    Then the big one. Cows. We simply have to cut the amount of beef and dairy the world consumes. UN estimates put the impact of cows at about the same as the entire transport sector. Not good. We need to switch to other foods, and they can’t be fish, as our fisheries are on the brink of collapse. That means we need to look at a more plant-based diet for everyone, and a move towards poultry, eggs, and animals such as pigs. (We also need to look at feeding and treating them humanely, but that’s another, non-sustainability, issue.)

    So yes, I see a lot of change required, and a lot of people will baulk at the changes. Mention “less meat” to even a crowd of self-proclaimed greenies, and you’ll find people seeing red.

    We’re good at accepting change, as long as it is change we choose for ourselves, it seems – and change we happen to dictate is appropriately “green”.

    But facing these tough issues is going to be a large part of learning to cope with what we face over the next 50 years, if we’re going to avoid major ecological and population collapse – both in the western world and elsewhere.

    Just my (rather long) 2c.

  • In order for people to change, it has to be 1) dictated by logic and not by emotion and 2) shown to work by reproducible results. The 350 project fails both of those tests.

  • While I certainly value logic I do not believe its absence negates the likelihood of change, nor does its presence necessarily increase the likelihood in and of itself. Different people are motivated by different means.

    Secondly I think criteria two: the necessity for results may depend on the metric and definition of what constitutes results. Is the current goal of the 350 project to reduce atmospheric carbon to 350 ppm or to raise awareness about the need to achieve that benchmark. And I do not question that the project has thus far provided little in the way of action plans, it raises the question in the public’s mind as to how we tackle this problem.

    And not to pee on everyone’s parade today, but I have been vegetarian for almost 13 years now. I’ve heard it all, fended off the whole battery of arguments from the intelligent to the asinine. I promised myself early on that I would be one of “the good ones” and spread the good news by example only. I’ve even been complimented on numerous occassions by people who normally “hate” vegetarians because they are too preachy. I’ve only ever discussed my diet in terms of positives (the variety and adventure of the diet rather than its limitations). When people ask my why I answer, but only on the most nonspecific terms (health, ethics, ecological impact). I learned early on that to go beyond that invites animosity. Most of us have grown up all their lives hearing the arguments in favor of a meat free diet (and most of us have grown up hearing those reasons mocked). The “logic” of many of those arguments is abundantly clear in our society yet vegetarians are still in the minority. There must be a catalyst, a person must have a visceral moment when one of the arguments suddenly ceases to be abstract. Emotion often plays a role. Until that point, I believe the advocate has little to do but prove the viability of the alternative.

    now the bad news…

    Not a one person I have come into contact with in my years ever converted as a result of my example. Sometimes I wonder if an example is all that is really needed. You could make the argument that living as a quiet vegetarian is simply providing the solution without demonstrating that there is a problem.

    This is why I think the 350 project is necessary. People have to realize that there is measurable problem. The essential facts must be laid bare.

    Secondly we must find a way to approach a problem which is at its core a moral one, without imposing the idea upon those who we wish to win that they are morally corrupt for their previous beliefs. That is the hardest task of all. Those resistant to change must not be made to feel ignorant or reprehensible for believing that the status quo is acceptable, but yet how do we then make an argument forceful enough to be persuasive?

    Wiser people than I will have to answer that task.

  • becky

    Melinda, you’ve raised a great question and a thought provoking post. i continue to be amazed at the 5200 actions worldwide last Saturday around the number 350. even just from an awareness (step 1) position this is so full of potential. i agree that figuring out how to move those thousands from step 1 to step 5 will require a range of approaches. As Red’s response above indicates, clearly, some of us are only going to change thru an appeal to logic and results. however, i know many people who are committed environmentalists at step 5 who found their way there not be logic- but by an emotional catalyst and are not sitting around waiting for proven results. their continued actions are based only on the hope of such results. so it’s clear we are a complicated group, we humans. (and that these differences must be part of any solution we attempt.) your blog btw offers a great illustration of this sort of balanced approach.

    i think colin beavan (no impact man) has one answer to your question. a week ago he (and treehugger) organized a “”no impact man project” where participants were led thru a week long experiment which allowed them to experience what he and his family attempted for one year, resulting in his No Impact Man book and movie. 4600 people signed up to work as a group thru this experience. (step 4-action!) that’s an amazing number also! hopefully, some from that group will move on to step 5 (maintenance). watching the lead up to the kick off date many, many people wrote in requesting “the manual”, (a clear example of step 3-preparation).

    i think you’re right that Al Gore (and The Age of Stupid movie comes to mind too) didn’t offer (as Colin is attempting to do) a manual for how to really change your life, something much more than changing lightbulbs. hence, these actions stirred everyone up and then failed to move us forward. and i think increasingly people are reaching for “the manual”, because they really do want to do more but they aren’t prepared with the information AND support they need. i think the response to Colin’s project offers hope and insight. the transition town movement is another great example. Bill McKibben and Colin are acquainted with each other’s work so hopefully they’re putting their heads together on this right now, looking for ways to keep it rolling. meanwhile, each of us, locally, need to keep looking too.

  • Melinda, I think you do a good job of providing information and inspiration to get people started down the path. My readership is a little different, though, and I do sometimes post the way I do to push those already on the path to increase their efforts. There are those on the green path that think a few small changes are enough. They are the ones I’m trying to shock into awareness that no, they need to go further. Make sense?

    We chose not to participate in a 350 photo op locally because it seemed asinine to have everyone drive to one location to gather for a photo. While the announcement did include, “Please carpool” if possible, I don’t think it said anything about biking, and I know it did not mention the bus. It would have been nice for them to have strongly encouraged biking or alternative transportation. After all, use of our own personal cars is contributing to the very problem they are trying to publicize!

  • Thank you so much for this great and timely post!!! I have very much the same attitude and I truly believe the only change that is lasting is change born from a true desire. It feels like society is almost being scared into taking action; our shift towards environmental consciousness is based on fear instead of a true desire to live lightly, quietly and in harmony with the earth.

    Anything that reminds us of the environmental impacts of our lifestyle is a welcome factor in the shift towards a more sustainable and environmentally conscious society. But can we not look towards the earth, towards nature our health and wellbeing and base our environmental actions not on fear but on a desire to protect the earth, to live sustainably and in harmony?

    As a society we need to reconnect with the living world and take time to appreciate the remarkable, wonderful and amazing place we tend to take for granted.

  • [...] Crafty Green Poet writes, “I think the idea of starting where people are at and giving them easy things to do is a [...]

  • [...] wrote a bit about it a while back: How Do You Get People To Change Their Lifestyles? In that post, I took a more academic approach of thinking about the stages of change and how you [...]

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