a contribution by Rahel Eyselein,
student in Development Economics and International Studies
at the FAU Nuremberg, Germany,
on exchange at ESSCA in 2018.

It is great and necessary to talk about sustainability. Another thing to do something. I recently held a presentation about the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in a class tackling controversies in development. Among other things, I encouraged listeners to take a look at the “The Lazy Person’s Guide to Saving the World”.

It is a guide provided by the United Nations (UN) with ideas for simple steps that individuals can realistically implement into their lifestyles to contribute to a more sustainable world. For the presentation, I had also distributed handouts visualizing all 17 SDG-pictograms. The wonderful feedback I got was why, after talking about sustainability for ten minutes and quite enthusiastically, I had distributed coloured handouts on regular printing papers. Would not some sustainable version on eco-friendly paper printed in black and white (or no Handout at all) have contributed much more to what I was saying? So true!

How many of us, who discuss and champion sustainability, actually live it out? Instead it seems, we prefer talking, or writing about it. It makes us feel smart, engaged, and it is much easier than actually changing habits. It is equally easy to point out the failure of governments to act or the need for the industry to start taking responsibility.

But though we, ordinary citizens, may not have created that crazy system addicted to growth that we live in, we cannot shift off all responsibility either – we know too well what we are part of. And, as consumers who can make choices, we do have collective power to bring change. Either through groups supporting one common cause such as Greenpeace and Extinction Rebellion; or through less, but more responsible consumption, forcing the market to react. While the awareness for sustainability has grown in recent years, it still seems that the hurdles to really live sustainably in every area of life on the individual level are high.

For one, there is laziness. Life is busy already and incorporating sustainability takes effort, especially in the beginning. It takes much more time and energy to run to local stores to find something you need, than quickly ordering it online. That hurdle is accompanied by the knowledge that most people don’t “overdo” sustainability anyways and the crippling thought that one person alone can’t make a difference.

Another thing is apathy, a lack of concern and enthusiasm, a kind of detachment from the issue and its urgency. It is so easy to slip into apathy. When you open the door on a normal, cold and rainy winter day Climate Change and its consequences seem far away. Contradictory evidence of what we see and what we fear plays its tricks on us. And when sustainable living keeps you from taking the next low-budget flight to a great and sunny vacation destination, then maybe sustainability isn’t your issue to tackle in the first place anyways?

And finally, strongly reinforcing these hurdles, is the sheer overwhelming complexity of the challenge. Where to even start with sustainable choices? Which area of it all is most important? Fairly produced clothes or local and seasonal food without unnecessary packaging? Aside from biking, refusing plastic bags and not heating while windows are open, not much of it comes easy. Going one step further already requires a willingness to sacrifice: Will I buy something in a local store if I could get it cheaper online? Will I renounce all the nice fruits and vegetables in the supermarket in order to stick to a seasonal diet? Will I make the effort to find a local and trustworthy farmer to buy eggs and meat from?

George Marshall, in his book Don’t Even Think About It, tries to find out why, despite scientific evidence, our brains are wired to ignore Climate Change. People acknowledge Climate Change as a threat when asked directly, but do not mention it when they are generally asked about what they fear. He addresses psychological effects, market and political failure but ultimately finds the main reason to be within ourselves. It is hard for our minds to fear an enemy that we do not see, can’t personalize and that, after all, has been created by ourselves. What unites us all, being human, is what detains us from reacting to climate change most of all. By gaining a deeper understanding of what motivates, excites and scares us all, we will be able to overcome our distance towards the issue. Marshall believes in the power of our collective choices and sees Climate Change as a challenge that can be mastered. But not if we keep on talking about it while at the same time ignoring it!

The way we consume and use what we have must change. And let’s be honest: most of us, we don’t walk the talk. And those who do can, at times, be complicated to be friends or family with. They don’t fly to exciting travel destinations; they don’t eat whatever they want but, no, it must be seasonal or regional or vegetarian – or all of it – and they don’t use their car but instead make you use trains no matter how inconvenient. They should be our role models! And there are many great ones who share their experience online: check out Bea Johnson’s zero waste home or The Story of Stuff for some good inspiration to start with. Because business as usual will not bring the change we need.

In some decades from now we will not be able to say “Oh, I didn’t really know what was happening.”, because most of us, we do. We should also know that we have everything it takes to make smart choices. Change will have to come from the grassroots level, from the individual level, from consumers, creators and citizens. As human beings we have been given the ability to create futures (The Artisan Soul, Erwin McManus), and now is a very crucial time in history to do some good sustainable future-creating.

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