Earth Day Question: What does YOUR identity have to do with sustainability?

Mariana Matija
Apr 22, 2016 · 8 min read

Let me elaborate: we’re constantly (and often unconsciously) building our identities. Every Facebook status, every Instagram picture, every piece of clothing we buy, our favorite recipes from our grandmothers, the movies we watch, our childhood friends, the people we decide to hang out with as adults (and those we decide to “unfriend” as we grow up), all of these are small building blocks of who we are, how people perceive us and how we relate to others. Of course these things don’t account for the whole of our identity, but they play an essential role in determining how easily we create, reinforce or discard habits, and thus pretty much define our ability to adapt to the rapidly changing world around us.

Our most deeply ingrained habits are very unsustainable: our consumption patterns, our taste for immediacy, comfort and convenience, our love for easy answers. Our habits are part of that identity we’ve been working so hard to build, so the idea of ​​questioning all those things that we now consider to be normal, desirable or even logical can make us feel under threat. Why should we change, after all? We don’t think we need to change and “change is hard.” But… is it really?

I’m not a psychologist, but I’m a big fan of questioning myself and everything around me. My mom is a psychologist and she introduced me to the concepts of cognitive dissonance (that discomfort you experience when your actions are inconsistent with your beliefs, or with your other actions) and cognitive biases (“shortcuts” that our brains take to process information, which usually end up with us being irrational). With that she opened a big can of worms; now I’m constantly thinking about how our brain patterns impact our relationship with the world, what I can do be a better observer of my own behaviour, and how I can take other people along on this “let’s observe our brain” journey. I think it’s a necessary journey if we want to live sustainably.

To illustrate this better, I’ll put myself as an object of study (not that there’s anything special about me… I just happen to be the person I’ve spent most time with):

When I was about 7 or 8 years old, I created a “green” club for my friends. The slogan of the club was “To take care of the world is to take care of life”. When you joined the club, you got a membership card.

First version of the card. It’s around 25 years old.

Growing up, among my favorite shows were Captain Planet and “Paz Verde” (which in English translates to “Green Peace.” I think I know where they got that name from…). I had two strong influences in my family — my mom and her boyfriend — who would teach me basic, “kid-friendly” stuff about environmental issues. But the TV shows and family members were not the only influences behind the club.

All this started shortly after I received a membership card that identified me as a member of a club from a national children’s magazine. It was cool to feel I was “officially” part of something, but something inside my 7 year-old brain told me that it would be even cooler if I created something that other people could be a part of (probably also because I like being in charge). So, I started my “green” club.

At that point of my childhood, I wasn’t only a card-carrying environmentalist; I was THE card-carrying environmentalist, because it was MY club. I organized meetings, wrote articles, planned trekking trips… and yes, I designed the cards. My friends began to identify me as “the ecologist,” the rumor came to school (several of the club members were also my classmates) and it was me who was called on to remove a bug from a classroom without killing it, or to decorate the trashcans in the halls (a strange way of promoting sustainable thinking … but that’s a subject for another day).

Other kids started perceiving me as someone who cared about the planet, thus I started feeling a responsibility towards that part of my identity; not because I felt it was what my friends expected, but because I felt I needed internal consistency. I wanted to match my actions to my beliefs (and to get rid of the cognitive dissonance). Of course I wasn’t aware of what was happening in my brain, but it happened anyway. Our brain doesn’t need to ask for permission to play with us.

Time passed, my adolescence arrived, and with it a whirlwind of changes and questions about identity. Who I am? Which of my friends should I hang out more? Do I like Nine Inch Nails or Britney Spears? Or both? My concerns about the future of the planet lost prominence as other aspects of my personality began to form (probably also in part because it was not “cool” to be so concerned about our planet… teenagers succumb quite easily to the cognitive bias commonly known as the bandwagon effect), but I think the “green” me always remained idling in the background. I still avoided plastic bags and had crushes on boys who would avoid them when buying beer (this may have been due to the cognitive biases “halo effect” and/or “ingroup bias”), but I definitely felt I was building my identity in another direction.

It was only on the verge of turning 30 that I started to feel that I needed to further explore that part of my identity again. And, again, it had something to do — kind of — with having an ID card. This time it was not a physical card, but a virtual one: a blog where I compiled “simple and painless” tips for a more sustainable life, because I couldn’t help but worry about the future of life on Earth every time I watched the news, and was convinced that “simple and painless” changes were enough. I kept on finding information that said that, so it must be true, right? Wrong. It was my brain again, taking the confirmation bias shortcut.

I went ahead with my plan to save the world one blog post at a time. But… how could I give these “simple and painless” tips if I didn’t apply them myself? I needed to at least know what I was talking about… and in that process, many things about my perceived identity began to change. I might have been biased, but the cognitive dissonance was stronger than that. The research for a publication made me question whatever I thought was “normal” or “okay,” and that led me to try and change a habit, and then another one, and another one. Cognitive dissonance was tricking me into trying to be coherent. I was falling victim to a positive spillover effect, and I had no idea what was happening.

5 months worth of trash from two people, wrapped in reused newspaper. Not Lauren Singer, but we’re on our way.

Now I’ve changed so many habits that my 18 year old self would gasp. I went from being a “normal” person who avoided plastic bags and turned off unused lights, to being a vegan who never shops fast-fashion, makes her own shampoo and generates just a small package of trash every six months (and it’s not even wrapt in plastic). I went from sharing simple and painless tips to sharing my process so other people can join me in asking questions, creating critical conversations around our consumption patterns and habits and, hopefully, changing the status quo.

I’m not saying I’m some sort of sustainability heroine now, and — before someone jumps down my throat— I’m not saying “vegan” is the only sustainable option (although there’s plenty of evidence that shows eating less meat is a must if we really reduce our impact on the most pressing environmental issues). It is MY option, though, and before you dismiss it completely or turn to eat even more meat, consider you might be falling victim of the confirmation bias (by only giving credit to the information that confirms what you already believe to be true) and the backfire effect (by rejecting the new information and holding even more strongly onto what you believe, in spite of all the evidence against it), respectively (or combinedly).

Anyway, sustainability turned into an essential part of my identity. I changed stuff about me that I previously thought was just “who I was”, and — against all odds — I haven’t dematerialized. I didn’t lose my identity; I’m just in the process of creating a more resilient one, one that works better not just for myself, but for everything around me. I no longer think change is hard. Rather, I see it as a process we can play with if we understand our cognitive processes a bit better.

Did I design myself into sustainability? Hardly. I had no idea what I was doing… but I kind of do now. I have a better understanding of my cognitive patterns, so I can keep on triggering new behaviours and habits (and hopefully I can help other people do the same).

Do you need to go back in time and have a green club in your childhood if you want to live more sustainably now? Of course not. My childhood plans to change the world didn’t turn me into a sustainability heroine (I wish). I’m far from being Captain Planet, I’m just someone who is more involved than the average person, mainly because my brain tricked me into it. Now I’m taking advantage of my brain tricks to take everything a step further (and to earn back that “green” identity card that seven-year-old me created).

If you want to live more sustainably, a good first step is to get a better idea about how your brain works, so you can understand what glitches are getting in the way of your present identity and your future, more sustainable identity. Not “simple and painless”, but not as hard as one would think, and usually not painful… at least not as painful as what we’ll experience if we keep falling for the system justification bias (the brain shortcut that makes us feel the world is doing just fine, so we don’t have to do anything to change it). Brains can be mean. Or cool. But the good news is that it’s mostly up to you.

Disruptive Design

Going against the grain; disrupting the status quo.

Disruptive Design

Going against the grain; disrupting the status quo. This curated collection of articles explores the themes of disruptive design, sustainability, cognitive science, gamification, social innovation, positive change interventions and the systems that connect it all.

Mariana Matija

Written by

I like learning, thinking and talking about education, creativity and sustainability.

Disruptive Design

Going against the grain; disrupting the status quo. This curated collection of articles explores the themes of disruptive design, sustainability, cognitive science, gamification, social innovation, positive change interventions and the systems that connect it all.

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