Recently I decided to make information come to me, via “liking” a bunch of environmental sites on Facebook. I’m ambivalent about whether this is a good idea or not. For one thing, I’m kind of inundated–there’s just too much. I’m also aware that by subscribing to sites that specifically and exclusively cater to my pre-existing ideological biases, I’m only reinforcing those notions and skewing my perception of the world.
For another thing: I’m now regularly scrolling through stuff like this, an article that was not published by The Onion, entitled “How to Dry Your Hands Using Just One Paper Towel.” I kid you not. Now, admittedly, I have found myself in grocery store aisles contemplating the hypothetical carbon footprint of three very similar types of packaging for mixed nuts (and feeling a bit nuts in the process). And I recently posted about my disappointment over some overly packaged marshmallows.
On a personal level, I like simplifying routines, and I do tend to obsess over things like the most environmentally-friendly way to dry your hands. Why? Because hand-washing is something I do many times every day; the action adds up. Like so many other small actions, the consequences multiply. After I got over the initial shock of my first period (yes, I’m talking about menstruation), my second shock was the amount of packaging around “feminine hygiene products.” I get it.
Yet consumption is more complicated than that. In a book I don’t have with me in France and forget the title of, but which nevertheless exists, I read about the extent to which “green” consumer choices often lead to net increases in consumption for various reasons. We may buy recycled paper but use more of it; we may buy hybrids but trade in cars more frequently to do so (or drive more, since it’s cheaper per mile by gas price, even though more driving leads to more congestion, more fuel consumption, and more road building).
This blog is a personal blog. I am writing in first person and a lot of what I am writing about is my perspective on the world. It’s easy to write about the small things, because I have a small life. I talk mostly to or about toddlers. When I move to Ireland in a few months, I will just barely be outweighed by my luggage. I have few things, little income, and, as far as I can tell, no grave import. When I write about stuff like how to save a few ounces of yogurt packaging, it’s kind of a cop-out. It’s easy. It’s in scale with the rest of my life, my microscopic sphere of influence.
And if you want to know my take on paper towels: I almost never use them; I do have one roll that I use for blotting my paintbrush when I’m doing water color painting. In public restrooms, the only situations where I wouldn’t have a (cloth) towel on hand, there tend to be either air dryers or (in Europe, especially in smaller places like restaurants or convents) those ‘infinity’ towels that you yank down to get a fresh (dry) section. I kind of wince when people use them just to dry their hands. There are better ways.
But there are also better–and more important–ways to talk about climate change, environmentalism. Even if your audience is seeking ways to be less wasteful with their personal habits, the key is paradigm shift, not nitpicking. “Paradigm” in a personal context meaning changing your mentality. The point is not using one paper towel or two to dry your hands.
The point is that paper towels exist. That paper towels exist, and people use them. Frequently. Even in their own homes. Even in places where clean water and fresh towels are readily accessible. Even when they are not handling meat or raw eggs or anything that really requires significant attention to hygiene. The point is that we are a society that finds paper towels more convenient than cloth towels; that we are a society that is willing to deal with the production and storage of massive amounts of waste to save moments of time or thought.
While it doesn’t make sense to use paper towels to dry your hands most of the time anyway–many if not most public restrooms these days (at least in countries where people are privileged enough to worry about how eco-friendly their hand-washing practices are) are equipped with air dryers for a more eco option, and paper towels in the home are an unnecessary expense with an easy, direct substitution (“old fashioned” towels, sponges…)–it also doesn’t make sense to focus on this kind of issue as a personal behavior change.
A lot of environmental issues intersect with personal behavior. It’s the whole “small things add up” concept again. When people feel unsafe biking, for example, they’re less likely to bike, more likely to take cars, and therefore more polluting. There is a relationship between public development projects–such as bike lanes or alternative bike routes–and public demand (see also: cycling in the Netherlands).
But how do you change personal behavior? Small though my data set may be, my experience with two adults-in-training shows that it takes a lot of training to get even basics of personal behavior to shift (I’ve been working on refining the 2 1/2 year old’s hand-washing technique for over 6 months now and let me tell you, it’s slow going).
It seems likely that personal behavior shifts most rapidly and effectively by the influence of strong external forces. This can be peer pressure, but it can also mean clear economic effects or increased accessibility. I’ve switched to a no-car lifestyle in France by dint of necessity, but there’s a public transit system backing me up–it’s not so much a choice as a set parameter of my life.
What is critical, then, is not studying hand-dabbing technique for those rare situations when you are confronted with an evil paper towel (though, by all means, go ahead and perfect that if that’s what floats your boat), but figuring out ways to leverage whatever you’ve got, be it power, money, social status, or time. This is something I’m still working on. If you have any ideas, please let me know.