Advertising
Advertising

Getting Green Done

Getting Green Done
Getting Green Done

    With Earth Hour behind us and Earth Day on the way, we thought April would be a good month for Lifehack.org to think Green. In the weeks ahead, you can expect to see posts reflecting all manner of perspectives on how to “Green up” your work and life.

    Nowadays, you can hardly swing a free-range cat without hitting someone making Green claims. Products tout their 35% post-consumer-waste packaging and their eco-friendly ingredients. Companies like Wal-Mart make public pronouncements about their commitment to the environment, and every political speech at least pays lip-service to global warming.

    You could be forgiven for thinking that it was all a bunch of hooey, just so much greenwashing by companies eager to capitalize on the issue-of-the-week, without too much serious content. You might remember your recent history, the strong public commitments our auto manufacturers made in the ’80s to more fuel-efficient cars and alternative sources of energy — until economizing fell out of style, the Yuppie era rushed in, and car companies started producing gas-guzzling behemoths for the new, trendy, conspicuous consumption lifestyles.

    I think there’s something to be said for striving to live a Green life, that in fact ultimately living by Green principles can be far more satisfying than grabbing whatever you can while the getting’s good. But the answers to the problems we face today aren’t going to be found on a bottle of faux-Green dish soap or in the annual reports of a Green-for-now corporation. They’re not going to be found in the things we buy and use at all, since buying and using are part of the problem.

    In fact, a better guide to Green living might well be David Allen’s Getting Things Done and the rest of the personal productivity literature, since the principles of Green living are not all that different from the principles we use to help us be more productive. Here are my thoughts on what real Green principles are; they should sound familiar to anyone who takes personal productivity at all seriously.

    Advertising

    6 Principles of Green Living

    Simplicity

    6 Principles of Green Living

      It’s pretty clear that the central environmental issue facing humanity is the availability of resources. Oil is an obvious one, but we’re facing shortages of food (as food crops are replaced with “biomass” crops to make ethanol to replace oil) and clean water, too.

      Most experts agree that the Earth could easily sustain the current population comfortably, and even twice the current population, if resources were distributed equitably. But they aren’t, and one reason is that the most powerful societies on the planet are more than a little wasteful; we use resources we don’t need, because we can.

      Surely you’ve encountered this scenario: You take the shrink-wrap off a package, open the box, pop the inner plastic seal, and take out your individually-wrapped goody. Or this one: after struggling with the 9″ x 12″ plastic blister-pack, slicing open a few fingers in the process, and pulling out the cardboard insert, you proudly display your 1/2″ x 2″ thumb drive. All that packaging goes straight into the trash — my family of five fills a 60+ gallon garbage can (kind of like this one) twice a week — and we’re pretty frugal.

      Marketers love all that packaging because they can put fancy graphics and selling points on it. Retailers love it because it makes products harder to steal. But the bottom line is, even when we don’t buy much, we consume a lot. And few of us “don’t buy much” — we buy all sorts of things we don’t need, from new jeans because the old ones are out of style to new toaster ovens because they now have integrated webcams to detect when our toast is exactly the right shade of beige to new cars because the old one is too “soccer mom” and not enough “rad chick”. We let our buying choices be dictated by advertisers and marketers who have convinced us that there’s a huge, yawning gap between who we are and who we should be — and that we can fill it up if we buy enough stuff.

      In reality, more stuff means more complexity — more upkeep, more keeping track, more things to do. In global terms, it means more wasted resources. Some people try to atone for buying more stuff by buying “Green” stuff — bamboo potholders, handmade mail sorters, recycled project folders. But that’s a lie: to get that hand-woven hemp grocery bag from Bolivia to Wichita takes oil, to run the lights in the store takes oil, to feed the Bolivian granny who wove it takes oil, to grow the hemp takes oil, and so on. You’re putting a few cents into the Bolivian granny’s pockets, and that’s honorable, but it’s not saving the Earth.

      Fairness

      And frankly, the Bolivian granny might be better off if she had a nice piece of land where her and her family could grow what they needed, instead of working for some eco-supplier and buying corn grown in Kansas — if they can get corn, since the ethanol producers pay better than Bolivian grannies, these days.

      Advertising

      Much of our consumption-driven market is based on unfairness. If the Bolivian granny were paid what you would expect to get for making that bag, if the people who collected her handicrafts and transported them to a port were paid what you’d expect to be paid for transporting them, if the people who loaded the shipping containers and ran the ship that brought the bags to the US were paid what you’d expect to be paid for doing that kind of work, if the people who unloaded the ships and drove the trucks and stocked the shelves at Wal-Mart were paid what you’d expect — well, that bag would be quickly priced out of your or anyone else’s range. Paris Hilton would tout a handmade Bolivian hemp grocery bag, not web designers in Kansas.

      Like I said, we consume so much because we can — and we can because we don’t deal fairly with everyone involved. It’s hard to be unfair to the people close around us — the people we live and work with on a day to day basis — because there are consequences, but there are few immediate consequences when dealing with people halfway around the world who we will never see, never meet, never know anything about, whose lives we can only imagine (and even that we rarely bother to do).

      Which leads to my next principle:

      Community

      Too much of our world market is out of sight, and therefore out of mind. Since we don’t see the lives of the Bolivian granny who makes our chic shopping bags, or the Indonesian teenager who makes our shoes, or the Chinese mother who assembles our iPods,we don’t think about it. And we don’t think about the tremendous amount of resources it takes to get raw materials from Africa, North America, Asia, and somewhere in the Pacific to some factory in China to put together an mp3 player which will then be shipped (using resources again from all over the world) to some store in Oregon (that is again assembled using materials from all over the world) and into our pocket (of pants made in the next town over from the iPod factory, using cotton grown in Africa and rivets made of steel from Japan on machines made in Europe from materials mined in…).

      On the other hand, if you’ve ever had the pleasure of attending a local farmer’s market, you’ve experienced something few of us do these days: an encounter with a part of your community, an actual living and breathing person, who made something for you to eat. There were some global resources used (even organic farmers use tractors, and they needed a truck to bring their stuff to market) but most of the labor and material involved came out of your local area — the soil you’re standing on, the person in front of you. You have a relationship with this person, and with their land. Your land.

      Your local farmer selling to a local market — that’s sustainable. The relationship you have with that person — that’s sustainable, too.

      Advertising

      Sustainability

      A system is sustainable when the negative outputs of that system are accommodated and turned into positive outputs. Think about your working life — if you weren’t getting paid, would you work so hard? Your hard work — a negative thing — is converted into something positive — a paycheck. Your employer turns the negative output — paying more money — into a positive input — increased revenue. The system sustains itself — or it collapses. If you aren’t getting paid enough, you quit working hard, revenues shrink, the employer goes out of business. Or they start putting in more and more inputs; using military forces to compel labor is not unheard of. Eventually those systems collapse too, when the cost of maintaining them outweighs the benefits produced by them. And they often collapse violently.

      Most of our global production is not sustainable. Waste products are dumped wherever space can be found — with no regard for the consequences on local resources or populations (see “impending shortage of fresh water”, above). Workers are treated unfairly: they are exposed to noxious substances and dangerous working conditions, and they are not compensated enough to feed themselves, let alone build a thriving economy (some aren’t paid at all: there are some 30 million enslaved workers in the world today, more than at any time in human history) — again, with no regard for the consequences (see “violent revolution”, above).

      Planning

      Creating sustainability requires planning. Fairness requires planning. Building community requires planning. No GTD’er would ever claim that their perfect outcome will come about without any plan at all. Yet all too often we accept that planning at the global economic level would be a Bad Thing.

      Ironically, we accept this argument from people, organizations, and governments that are, of course, planning extensively. Organizations like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization, and so on are, of course, planning. But their goals are far from Green. And their plans aren’t exactly common knowledge.

      Planning means looking ahead towards a desired outcome; it also means thinking a little bit about the community that isn’t here yet and dealing fairly with them. The last century ran its course largely unplanned — something that today’s young adults are being forced to come to grips with! The decisions we make now will create the conditions our grandchildren and their grandchildren will have to deal with.

      And you thought planning your bathroom remodel was hard!

      Advertising

      Transparency

      Planning, community, fairness, and ultimately sustainability require transparency. Most decisions these days are made behind closed doors. I’m not talking about governments here, though they too hide their actions, whether by refusing to detail their decisions (I’m talking to you, Dick Cheney) or by burying them in language so obtuse even lawmakers rarely know what they’re voting on.

      But most of the decisions that affect us are not made by governments, they’re made by corporations and other actors in the global market, whose decisions are protected as “intellectual property” and hidden by obscurity and distance — is there a single product in your home that you know the conditions under which it was made? Do you even know the name of the company that made most of the stuff in your house?

      Here’s an example: many of my students are fans of the Dove Evolution commercial, which shows the way that makeup, lighting, and computer retouching are used to manipulate the images that advertisers use to promote their products. Dove must be a pretty enlightened company, right? Well, Dove isn’t a company. It’s a division of Unilever — which also makes Slim-Fast dieting products, skin lightening creams it sells to dark-skinned women, and, of course, Axe body spray, which doesn’t exactly promote healthy images of women.

      A Green society requires the active involvement of all its participants, and we can’t be actively involved if we don’t have access to all the information in play. What’s more, given the global magnitude of the world economy, we can’t ever be fully informed — which is why simplicity and community are so important. You can know quite a bit about the farmer at the farmer’s market who raised the chicken you’re about to eat.

      Getting Green Done

      Good gravy, I’ve written a manifesto!

      This is not a call to revolution. (Yet.) This is a call to take these matters seriously, to put some real thought into what living Green might actually look like, stripped of fashion and marketing pretense. Over the next month, our contributors will put forth ideas about how to put these principles into action. Some of their ideas will be big ones, and others will be smaller. They might or might not use the same language I’ve used here, but we’re talking about the same thing: how can we do our part to make sure that the system as a whole works for everyone?

      But we can’t do all the work. We can’t even do a tiny fraction of the work. We can suggest, prod, provide tricks and hacks, but in the end, you’re going to have to make some decisions, to think about how your actions fit in with you values, whatever they are. As bleak as all this talk of scarce resources and environmental destruction might seem, I think it’s ultimately hopeful, because it gives us an opportunity to decide what kind of people we are, together and individually — and to take action to become the kind of people we want to be, both together and individually.

      More by this author

      The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain) How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works) Building Relationships: 11 Rules for Self-Promotion How to Become an Expert (And Spot out One Nearby)

      Trending in Featured

      1 The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain) 2 How to Stay Motivated and Reach Your Big Goals in Life 3 How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques 4 How to Stop Procrastinating: 11 Practical Ways for Procrastinators 5 50 Businesses You Can Start In Your Spare Time

      Read Next

      Advertising
      Advertising
      Advertising

      Last Updated on July 17, 2019

      The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

      The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

      What happens in our heads when we set goals?

      Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

      Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

      According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

      Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

      Advertising

      Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

      Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

      The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

      Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

      So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

      Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

      Advertising

      One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

      Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

      Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

      The Neurology of Ownership

      Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

      In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

      Advertising

      But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

      This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

      Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

      The Upshot for Goal-Setters

      So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

      On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

      Advertising

      It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

      On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

      But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

      More About Goals Setting

      Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

      Reference

      Read Next