The below reflections are from former NWEI intern and outreach staffer, Kate Rinder, who now is the Youth Leadership Program Assistant at North Cascades Institute in Bellingham, Washington. Thank you Kate for the following reflections on sustainability and behavior change!
It’s 7:30am on a Wednesday morning, and I’m wearing a green apron in a coffee shop in the mall…and I’m wondering what I’m doing there. For starters, I’m not someone who normally spends time in malls. The consumption in the air tends to make me a bit nauseous. However, while I had gotten an internship with the Northwest Earth Institute (NWEI) before I moved to Portland, I still needed a job. Which led to my presence in that caffeine dispensary this morning. I empty another gallon of milk into a steaming pitcher and cringe as I toss it into the garbage can. No, we “couldn’t” recycle there. As I start steaming milk for a caramel macchiato, the customer asks, “Could you put extra caramel in that?” “Of course!” I exclaim. As I drizzle the golden sauce all over the cup and then add a generous squeeze atop the whipped cream, my mind returns to the lunchtime discussion on Menu for the Future we’d had at NWEI the day before.
NWEI is a nonprofit that creates small-group discussion guides designed to facilitate more sustainable lifestyles. On my first day, we started their food and sustainability focused course, Menu for the Future. Although I was familiar with topics like organic and local food, GMOs, and agribusiness from college coursework, this awareness had not fully translated into my personal food decisions. Participating in this course taught me about all the things I should be doing as a conscientious and sustainable food consumer—something I definitely wanted to be. However, while I knew the sugar and fat laden drinks I was making at work were far from the ideal of what people should be consuming, I was also somewhat overwhelmed by the scope of all the changes I was learning I needed to make. There was not a question of belief or desire; I wanted to be buying, preparing, and eating food that was good for the planet and me. But I didn’t know how to do it all—especially while working a part-time job at a coffee shop.
It’s a Sunday afternoon, a year later. Late summer sun streams through clouds of steam making my kitchen seem mysterious and sultry. However, the only mystery is how I successfully managed to can a bucket of blackberries into preserves without seriously burning myself. I’m a little flustered, but as I sit exhausted at the table, marveling at the deep burgundy jars of berries, I am proud I finally accomplished my goal to preserve some of the abundant summer produce. I know that the months I’ll be able to eat this delicious fruit will definitely justify a few stressful hours running between laptop and stove top to procure this final product. I recall how intimidated I’d been about the idea of doing this when I’d participated in Menu for the Future the previous summer. And while the process certainly had not been flawless, I was confident canning was something I would keep doing for a long time. This was just one of many changes I’d made over the year—more than I had predicted at the outset.
There are several reasons why I underwent such dramatic change, and people were the most instrumental. I lived and worked with others who were ‘walking the talk’ every day, providing me with accountability and models for living sustainably. Portland’s infrastructure and social norms also made it easy to live in an eco-conscious way. Finally, I had a lot of information about what I should be doing through NWEI. In particular, much of my change was due to my participation in NWEI’s discussion courses, which are strategically designed to counteract social and psychological barriers to behavior change and break actions into manageable steps. For me, all of this combined to create a ‘bubble’ that made sustainable decisions an easy new norm. In reflecting on my own experiences, there are several specific factors that led me to where I am today—not a single transformative experience. Although connection with nature supported by my parents was an important formative influence, it was my sustainability-focused, experiential study-abroad program that catapulted me towards a career dedicated to protecting the environment. Yet it was not until I lived and worked in Portland that I systematically underwent a sustainable behavior transformation.
If we want people to change their behaviors, we must show them, not tell them. Our society currently operates as if nature is a separate, limitless entity. We must work towards a world where every person considers the sustainability of every choice. If we are truly serious about our work, fostering sustainable decision-making must be our primary focus. If not, all the affective connections, inspiration, and sensitivity we have fostered will be futile. Transformative nature experiences and environmental and sustainability education as a whole must translate and connect the natural world to the way people live their lives in order to be sustainable. There are a million reasons we have to do this; for myself, I need to ensure that there will still be a wooded world for six year olds to run barefoot through for a long, long time…
Originally from the Midwest, Kate moved to Portland, OR in 2008 to work with the Northwest Earth Institute. She completed her M.Ed. in Environmental Education and Nonprofit Leadership and Administration through Western Washington University and North Cascades Institute in 2012, and has been leading high school backcountry youth leadership and sustainability programs since. When not helping young people fall in love with nature, Kate spends her time sharing meals with friends, hiking, going for full moon canoes, running, doing yoga, naturalizing, jumping in cold lakes, preserving food, and learning how to knit.