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Sustainability Begins At Home

I had a long discussion the other day with someone at work about how to best create change in this world.  For her, the most important thing is to change policy, and focus on changing the minds of politicians.  It was an interesting discussion.

Do you believe that your individual changes at home make a difference?  Let me try to convince you that they do matter, that they do make a difference, and in fact without the little changes, I don’t believe we can make bigger policy changes…

Go Back In Time A Moment

Think back to a time before you brought your own bags to the grocery store (less than two years ago for me), or didn’t wonder whether that banana or apple was local or organic or even seasonal, or didn’t think twice about getting in the car and driving here or there.  Maybe you’re still working on those things, or maybe it hasn’t been that long since then, or maybe it has been years – but just think about that time before you knew.

Before you knew that there was a finite amount of oil in the world, or that the emissions in your car were making a big impact on the planet.  Before you knew that there were all sorts of pesticides deep within the fruit you were giving your children as a snack.  Before you knew you didn’t have to pay $5 for shampoo or kitchen cleaners….

I think about myself in high school, with my bleach blond permed hair, my pink lipstick and blue eye shadow, driving my VW Rabbit a bit too fast because it was the symbol of my freedom… you get the picture.

Ok, picture that former self and get back into that mindset…. what would you have said if you had been told by a politician you couldn’t drive your car anymore – it was time to take the bus?  Or that your lawn can’t be watered today, because you’re wasting water?  Or that you’re going to be charged for a flimsy plastic bag when you go to the store?  Or that this year the bulk of the national budget is going to help China figure out how to not make the same environmental (or social) mistakes we have made? Can you imagine?  You would have been pissed.

Because you hadn’t yet recalibrated your thinking, you hadn’t redefined normal in your own mind.  Those things didn’t matter to you then the way they do now.

Politics Are Normal

A politician cannot legislate a redefinition of normal.  The norms have to happen in society first, or that politician is going to be out of office next time around.  Politicians are keenly aware of what society defines as normal, and they don’t stray very far from it.

It’s up to us, regular people, to redefine normal in society.  Ten years ago nobody had heard of the term climate change.  Now it’s standard, normal, an everyday term and concept.  No politician legislated this.

Back in high school I had no idea my driving my car would have an impact on the environment.  But had a politician told me, I would probably have rebelled.  I needed to learn it for myself.  I needed to change my own mind.  And after I changed my own mind, I needed to change my own lifestyle.  Had a politician changed my lifestyle, I would have resented him.

Politicians Are Normal

That brings me to another point:  the politician would never have done that anyway!  Legislators care what their constituents think, if for not other reason than to get re-elected.  But more importantly, unless the politician fundamentally believes in something, he or she is not going to stick their neck out for it.  That means that politician has to redefine normal in his or her own life FIRST.  And that comes down to that person being human, just like the rest of us.

That’s what made us all change, isn’t it?  Our human-ness, our humanity, our need to feel good and be happy and understand our positive place in the world.

Sustainability begins at home for a politician just the same way it does for all of us.  Because we’re all human.

We Define Normal

And that is why what we are doing is important.  As we each redefine normal in our own lives, the whole tide of society is beginning to change.  How many more people do you know who are talking about a garden this year than 5 years ago?  How many more people do you know who are talking about local food, or being a part of their community, or saving more money this year, than even two years ago?  We’re changing the world, you and I.

We are changing the world, one piece of normal at a time.  Because changing a piece of normal eventually leads to changing one life at a time, and then one group of friends at a time, and then one community at a time, and, eventually, one world at a time.

It’s up to us.  Sustainability begins at home…. and then it spreads outward. We are making a difference, here and now.

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17 comments to Sustainability Begins At Home

  • Thanks for this post. I’ve been thinking about this issue a lot lately. Sometimes it’s hard to convince yourself that the changes you are making are actually achieving anything. I witnessed an obnoxious exchange at work the other day where a very arrogant man was stating very loudly that he didn’t need to change his lifestyle. I was so upset by the fact that people like this are probably in the majority, but then I went and planted some vegetables and felt better. Since we’ve started our vegetable garden, 5 family members have also started growing some of their own food and they are all enjoying it. It’s a small change, but if it grows exponentially like this, perhaps there is hope.

  • Elonwy Hickey

    Thank you so much. I have been having this argument recently with a variety of people, and this is exactly what I’ve been trying to say, but you put it much more elegantly that I do.

  • Christina

    Yes – and I love that the photo you chose was of a child. Politicians are isolated from being personally impacted by individuals around them – most other folks are not, and children especially. Every day I live this life around my children, I am propagating change out to the seventh generation, and I can see that change in the people around me as well. My change (and willingness to discuss it) has affected my mother’s change, and together we catalyzed an amazing change in my father (who is more conservative) – to the point where we’re working on a group sustainability relocation strategy! Backwards from me, I credit an aunt who has been ecologically active since the 70s and a friend who pointed me to Sharon Astyk’s writings.

    I don’t totally agree that a politician can’t have a serious impact without terminating their career, though. It would definitely take a lot of courage and would certainly be incredibly risky. Obama could be framing our E^3 crisis (environment, energy, economy) more forcefully to inspire the sort of social change that came under FDR’s leadership in the 30s and 40s, catalyzed by the Depression and Pearl Harbor. Or if we are truly lacking the national immediacy engendered in those two crises, he could step up for significant change in the manner of LBJ and the landmark civil rights legislation. Heck, the founders didn’t have much immediacy for their rebellion – just some high taxes :-)

  • Clayton

    I agree that individual changes at home are a good place to start, will make a difference, but, they are not enough and can lead to complacency. I believe that each of us needs to act now on multiple levels to effect change: personal/at home, in the workplace, in an organization, by voting, contacting lawmakers and by contributing to groups which are working on change.
    Doing recycling, cfl’s and gardens at home is not going to stop the destruction of the environment in time to make a difference. See ‘As The World Burns – 50 Simple things You can Do to Stay in Denial’

  • paula

    I think we need both. Here (Queensland, Australia) the government DID tell us we could no longer water our lawns (and veggie gardens- yikes) due to drought and then subsidised rainwater tanks – not watering the lawn with town water is now the norm. They werent popular initially, but they didnt lose the next election. Plastic bags are next… Not sure how Governments would go with the bigger issues though.

  • What a great point! I have been trying to live a better life and educate myself (especially about food) and now I want to share what I know with my friends. The tough thing is trying to balance sharing the knowledge with sounding too preachy or condescending to those who don’t make the same choices that I do…*sigh*

  • Your argument is great. Our local newspaper recently published an opinion piece from the director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, saying personal changes don’t matter at all. In fact, he says, “December should be national Green-Free Month. Instead of continuing our faddish and counterproductive emphasis on small, voluntary actions, we should follow the example of Americans during past moral crises and work toward large-scale change.” (Read more:

    It makes me mad … I agree that we should work toward larger change. But meanwhile, we should just throw in the towel and not bother with personal changes? If EVERYONE isn’t doing it, NO ONE should do it? It’s counterproductive? Way to encourage us to get active with our senators, right? It’s so discouraging to see environmentalists promoting this type of thing. People do personal changes because they’re accessible — and I think that’s a good — and productive — thing.

  • this is it exactly. David Suzuki had this fantastic “story” in his book- the Sacred Balance, about his experiences of how our cultural norms and social expectations do change. His memory was how less than fifty years ago it was culturally acceptable to spit all over… on the bus, in a store etc etc. At one point, he remembers how public services had to put signs up asking individuals to “not spit”, where now simply the social pressures are enough to keep most people from spitting all over= it’s not like you see “do not spit” signs everywhere.

    Society and People make our cultural norms (along with media and advertising of course..), and changing social mores needs to happen from a “group think” perspective. which will domino into all the big changes up in policy that we want to happen.

    I understand how some people would argue the “yes but- big changes need to happen from policy”, because it’s so HARD to make the small steps for others when we’ve made our Journey so far into this “eco” life… it’s so difficult to step back and remember what it was like Pre-Journey.

    I loved your post!

  • Yes, I think you are absolutely right. Slightly of topic, but maybe not, maybe the spread of redefining normal…we are starting a composting program at work (childcare center). I am so excited about this!

  • Rob

    So True. Where I am at today compared with were I was two years ago is amazing. And so much more I could be doing. LOL Of course I use to highlight my hair with lemon juice in High School. ANything to be different!

  • Linda

    Melinda, exactly right!! Not only would politicians run into resistance were they to legislate green, frugal living, they might encounter armed rebellion. I know quite a few people who would not stand for such a high degree of government regulation and loss of freedom. What I can do is show them, by the way I live, that by doing more for myself saves me money and results in a higher quality of life. What the government *can* and should do is make it easier for those of us who want to go green. Allow chickens on suburban lots. Give tax breaks for those who use renewable energy. Restructure energy billing to encourage frugality. And many such more . . .

  • Thank you for writing so eloquently what I have tried to say so many times. If nothing else, the changes I’ve made in my life have not been so hard that even if it didn’t have an impact I’d be bothered. I actually enjoy my life far more and appreciate more things NOW then I did before I started to re-examine what I call normal. I derive so much more satisfaction from my life.

    I wish I could show other people how much these simple things make me happy, but I don’t think that I have that gift.

  • Thank you for all of your awesome comments.

    Clayton and Paula, I was thinking about your points last night and this morning. I didn’t mean to say that legislation is in any way meaningless, only that we have to reach a critical mass of redefining normal in order for legislation to be effective (and enacted in the first place). In other words, sustainability begins at home, but it does not in any way stop there. This is the opposite of an excuse to just make little changes. We have to experience the changes at home – which are sometimes little and sometimes big – before we can fully implement change with politics.

    I agree completely that both have to happen. But I think it’s extremely important to understand that our own changes DO make a difference, and that we can’t do it all with politics. We have to collectively redefine the way we do things.

  • [...] out of your comfort zone.  But you can do it.  We’ll all support each other – this is how we change the world, one bit at a time!  It’s easy.  Let your enthusiasm shine through what you do.  Be an [...]

  • [...] recent blog post I read reminded me about a thought-provoking editorial published in our local paper. The op-ed piece was [...]

  • Interesting post! Thought provoking. We all need to do what we can, even if it is just to feel better about ourselves. Change always begins at home.

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