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A path to sustainable future: Training the human brain to think Green

Sameera Zaman | December 09, 2019 00:00:00

Bangladesh has been at the forefront of the climate change debate, being ranked at the 9th position of the Climate Risk Index 2019 published by the Germanwatch, a German non-profit organisation. Various data sources show Bangladesh is already much greener in terms of energy consumption per capita and non-degradable waste generation per year. Green technology, such as eco-buildings and solar panel installations, is also not uncommon nowadays. Despite numerous policies and regulations implemented by the government and a strong will to achieve the SDG targets, Bangladesh is at the 179th place in the Environmental Performance Index (EPI) developed by the Yale Centre for Environmental Law & Policy as of 2018.

As citizens, the people of Bangladesh have the right to vote, but they also have the responsibility to create a conscious society. Majority of the population in Bangladesh doesn't seem to be aware of the environmental issues, apart from the educated few. Though with the current global climate crisis, many have expressed concerns about the state of the natural environment. More importantly, many have displayed the intentions of taking sustainable actions. Yet, it is not unusual for people in Bangladesh, as well as all over the world, to engage in unsustainable behavior every day. Why is it so difficult for us to act upon our environmental concern?

Sustainable actions are not a social default in Dhaka, or in Bangladesh as a whole. However, it is time to realise that small changes do add up. Individual sustainability paves way for a broader social change, because social norms are not directly established but are developed over time. As far as sustainable behavior goes, it is still more of a talk than action. That is because so many unsustainable actions are considered perfectly normal in our society, for instance continuously shopping for new consumer goods such as clothes as a representative of social status rather than shopping for second-hand which is often times considered undesirable. Encouraging positive social cues for sustainability is a necessity for our society.

Sustainable living could be defined as reducing our ecological footprints at any level and scale in our day to day life. A typical working individual in Dhaka city is living in the work-earn-spend cycle, many with a poorly balanced lifestyle. On a daily basis, work and commute take so much effort that no one has the time or energy to ponder upon lifestyle choices, let alone time to de-stress or opt for a healthy mind and body. According to a study by Dr. Christie Manning, an expert in Environmental Psychology, people's cognitive and emotional response to information about climate change often plays a huge role in them acting sustainably. Adopting sustainable lifestyle often means people having to go out of their way to take actions. People may like to believe that they are immune to trends, but they are constantly adjusting their behavior based on social signals. Evolutionary speaking, the human brain tends to make quick decisions based on simple cues without deeper consideration of a certain situation. A routine task becomes second nature and once a habit is made out of it, it becomes increasingly difficult to bring about changes, especially if the context and circumstances remain the same. For example, although the data varies from country to country, on an average 33-42% of the people leave the water taps running while brushing teeth, when 2.1 billion people around the world don't have access to safe water, as reported by the World Health Organisation in 2017. Use of technology, commuting to work, food consumption, taking a shower are some activities that are rarely consciously processed once a person does it regularly. A lot of these habits that are developed throughout the years are unnecessary, and in fact, unsustainable in terms of resource use. They are most likely going to stay this way if conscious changes are not made in our daily routine. Changes could be as easy as carrying a reusable bag for grocery shopping rather than getting an extra few (albeit free of cost) every time something is bought. This is a common practice in many countries in the world, and most of the time, the bags from the grocery stores come with a small price. This focus on one action at a time may appear slow but will make possible for social and policy progress to occur.

Sustainability is a complex problem with no easy solution as most people cannot see, hear or even sense its impacts in real-time. Many sustainable behaviors are brand new to people and might not appear to be so threatening when learnt and practiced over time. When trying something unknown, there is a potential stress associated with it, which is why many people just tend to opt-out of developing more sustainable habits. Given the current state of degradation of greenery in Dhaka city, planting some herbs or plants in the balcony or rooftop is a great idea that would however require some practice and trials. Hence it is important to focus on improvement and not perfection, since that usually leaves people paralysed by confusion about choosing the right path. It is crucial to set goals that are motivating but also realistic. Actions are significant because of the message they send to the surrounding individuals, and aid in creating a political space for the Government and businesses to take action. Sustainable behavior is the easiest when people face few barriers while performing it. Policy changes are often the most effective tool to cause behavior change but it is unrealistic to think that it will work without the individuals in the society contributing to its success. A shift toward a more sustainable lifestyle can have different scales of effort and impacts, but all are necessary even if there are a few people doing it.

At the end, it is a disheartening conclusion that begs an obvious question: Why bother? The risks are well-known at this point, but our psychological defense mechanisms are likely to shut down any action that might solve the problem when all that is heard nowadays is doom and gloom and that everything is pointless. By talking about climate change and environmental problems, the artificial conflict that the mankind created between themselves and the environment is reinforced. However, the environmental problems go beyond nature and it is ultimately going to have an impact on the humans through destabilisation of our resources, health and economy. Not everyone will develop sustainable habits, but it is necessary to question our lifestyle choices and assess the situation, just in case, an environmentally friendly option is achievable. Climate change isn't binary, but at this point, a person can only wonder how much climate change the world will experience. So, ask the server to leave out the plastic straw when you order a drink, create the herb garden in your balcony, don't use your toilet as a waste bin, don't waste food - several small steps do add up to cover a long distance.

Easy reusable swaps for everyday article that are used without a second-thought. Investing a minimum amount of finances and effort can reduce plastic and paper wastes drastically, if more people opt for sustainable living choices.

Sameera Zaman is an Environmental Sciences masters graduate from the University of Freiburg, Germany. Currently, she is working as a Data Analyst in a private company, and also as an independent consultant in the field of social and environmental research. She can be reached at sameera.zmn@gmail.com

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