Reconciling Values and Self-Interest to Encourage Sustainability – Reflections from NWEI’s Executive Director

NWEI’s Executive Director Mike Mercer’s guest opinion piece, We Can Reconcile Moral Values and Self-Interest to Encourage Sustainability,  was featured in yesterday’s Oregonian. Read below for Mike’s perspective on reconciling values and self-interest in pursuit of a more sustainable community.

Our sustainability “tent” can be broadly defined as all the people who have decided to do something large or small about the environment. It’s growing, but it still only covers a small segment of the population. If we really are to achieve a thriving, sustainable future, the sustainability tent has to be large enough to include the diverse perspectives found among our citizenry.

Most folks on the street, if asked, would describe a sustainability advocate as urban, spiritual, politically liberal and intellectual. If this view is accurate, we have two approaches: Try to convert all those who don’t fit this profile to think like an advocate, or find a path to meet people where they are, appealing to the values they hold most dear — the well-being of ourselves, family and friends.

Let’s step back and define the real problem pushing us away from a prosperous future for all: We simply consume too much stuff, much of our waste is toxic and the biosphere that enables life can’t keep up with the pace of human progress. As consumers, we determine the success of advancements in technology, policy and market forces. The majority of citizens understand that we should change our ways.

A 2010 study conducted by Yale University highlighted the “say-do gap,” the gap between what we say we should do and what we actually do. The study examined a wide range of “sustainability” behaviors and the gap between beliefs and actions. For example: 76 percent of the respondents said that it is important that we walk or bike more regularly instead of driving, yet only 15 percent said they do. It is important to use reusable shopping bags, 81 percent said, yet only 33 percent do.

On the surface, this study suggests that for a significant majority, guilt or education is not enough to elicit a change in behavior. A significant reason is because we have too much on our plates; other priorities take precedence. So then, how do we help citizens care enough to overcome barriers and change behaviors toward a sustainable future? One successful approach is to help them link the change to the values that matter most to them. At the NW Earth Institute, we take two proven approaches to closing the say-do gap. First, we use the power of fun, shared learning, shared discovery and support. Second, we encourage citizens to reflect on their values (current and evolving), not ours, and consider why thriving human and non-human communities might matter to them.

There really is room for both altruistic and self-interest values to achieve a future that includes clean water, healthy air and material possessions to meet our needs. On the surface, self-interest and community values don’t appear to be great bedfellows, but actually, they co-exist within many aspects of our lives. For some, eating local and organic food is primarily a choice for better health, but this choice also has the side benefits of building stronger local economies, reducing greenhouse gases, cleaner waterways and better outcomes for those involved in food production. I started riding my bike in 1989 because I couldn’t afford a second car and I wanted to maintain good health and look the way I did … yes, a bit of vanity! My reasons for riding today are much broader, but they didn’t start that way.

If we really are to achieve the broad-scale change necessary for a thriving, sustainable future, I am for making the tent as big as possible with room for those open to change, without prescribing the values motivating that change.

To read Mike’s guest column online, click here.


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