I've heard it said that our culture will never be able to live sustainably because "people are just too selfish." But I don't believe that people are selfish. They may not concern themselves with the far-reaching consequences of their actions as much as they do with the local consequences--on their children, on their friends, on their town--but it's not a matter of selfishness. It's more a matter of inertia in the face of longstanding cultural behavior patterns.
We're like cigarette smokers. We aren't bad, mean, selfish people. We just have a bad habit.
This is an important distinction, because if the problem is that people are selfish by nature, then, as the argument goes, the whole planet is done for. There's no defeating human nature, so why even try? But if it's just a matter of a bad habit, then all we have to do is kick it.
Besides, if people are selfish, then living in ways that hurts the environment is a long way from serving their interest. It doesn't make us happier or healthier to drive to work--in fact studies shows that drivers are the least happy of all commuters. A selfish person wouldn't do it. It doesn't make us happier or healthier to eat more than a modest amount of red meat--studies show it makes us fatter. A selfish person wouldn't do that either. These are just bad habits, that, in fact, we--and the planet--would be happier without.
If we really believe people are selfish, or at least self-interested, then maybe our job as environmentalists is to let them know how their unsustainable behavior is harming them. Better yet, let them know how sustainable habits would help them. Health education has been, for example, a central strategy for anti-tobacco activists.
I smoked cigarettes on and off until I was 29 and finally quit forever. When I smoked, I knew that cigarettes weren't particularly good for me, but I didn't want to face the pain of stopping. Now that I have, I can't believe what I was sacrificing to keep smoking. I feel so much healthier and cleaner. I postponed these benefits for a long time, not because smoking made me feel good or happy, but just because I had a bad habit. Understanding the benefits, though, I will never go back.
Maybe it is the same with the culture and environmentalism. Maybe, instead of trying to scare people to death with images of far-away polar bears, we should convince them of the benefits they would personally accrue from living environmentally--the money saved, the health gained, the community rebuilt. These are some of the benefits. I know because I've been living this way for nearly a year.
You want to know one reason I'm optimistic? In the last 20 years, anti-tobacco activists have managed to significantly break our culture of one bad habit. Maybe that proves that our culture can kick the waste habit too.