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Changing human behavior and the high cost of going green

Last week, a PBS Facebook fan by the name of Kat popped a question in our Pitch Room:

“I’d like to investigate why people don’t/won’t change their behavior concerning energy conservation, reducing consumption, recycling, detoxing their homes, etc. Is it some form of denial? Blame the Other? Why do we continue to ruin our environment?”

It’s safe to say that Need to Know fans are largely pro-environment, and we’ve had some quite invigorating discussions on past stories in our environment beat (Robert Fri’s analysis of windmill opposition, our video segment on Wyoming’s battle between the sage-grouse and the wind power industry, Sal Gentile’s interview with climate scientist Michael Mann, and our ever-popular look at the “tiny house” movement, to name a few examples). It’s hard to deny that big corporate interests and lobbyists play a large role in slowing down the country’s shift towards more sustainable living. But lambasting Big Oil and sneering at Hummers can only get us so far. How do we reform the most basic unit of energy consumption: human behavior?

Throughout our coverage of the energy industry and the environment, we’ve received plenty of comments detailing obstacles to adopting a cleaner, greener lifestyle. The price of organic food, for one, is a common complaint, as reader jtlately described:

“Even though I have lots of choices with grocery stores and a local farmers’ market, finding some things – such as strawberries – that are organic is challenging, if not outright impossible! So, am I to not eat them?”

Self-described “poor grad student” Patrick R. agreed:

“As a poor grad student, I can scarcely afford the pesticide-laden imported grapes, much less organic sources for all my produce. I can’t wait until I one day have a real job that allows me to purchase a little plot of land where I can grow much of what I eat, but it just isn’t happening right now.”

Reader Kate Gallagher, however, had a suggestion for driving prices down:

“The sooner people switch to organic foods in a big way the sooner the prices will drop. As we all know the more of anything grown/made/produced/manufactured the cheaper the cost to do so. If we demand organic foods on a large scale the prices will come down.”

One of our most popular segments to date on the “tiny house” movement also elicited a wistful comment from a reader named Tracey who was unable to build her own:

“[Tiny houses] would be a fabulous idea if most jurisdictions didn’t have Zoning Ordinances with minimum square footage requirements.”

Kathy Handyside echoed the opinion:

“People are beginning to rise up and fight these [zoning ordinances]. Why should we be forced into more house than we need, just because of corporate greed on the part of the housing industry (who were the ones who changed the codes)? There are so many people who are homeless who probably would not be homeless if the zoning codes allowed small houses.”

Readers also spoke up about some of the pitfalls involved with adopting wind power — heralded as the new frontier of renewable, sustainable energy production. Jeannie Counce explained how the transmission lines from wind turbines affect property values nearby:

“I live in Montana and [transmission lines are] a really big rub. No one wants to lose value on their property by having massive transmission lines (there still is very little energy infrastructure) run across their land. Keep in mind that a 1,000 acre ranch can be significantly devalued, especially if the owner was planning to one day develop it into a residential neighborhood. The fact that we’ve been consistently ripped off by energy companies selling “our” resources to out-of-state buyers for less than they charge us as consumers is also an issue–it’s not as much about the destination as it is about being gouged.”

In an effort to avoid accusations and finger-pointing at those who refuse to change, allow us to rephrase Kat’s question for you: What are some of the difficulties you’ve faced in trying to adopt a more environmentally friendly lifestyle? If you don’t own a solar panel, compost garbage, bike or take public transportation to work, have a downsized home, buy organic, or use energy-efficient light bulbs – why not? And if you have gone out of your way to go green, what has made it easier for you?



  • shane


    It’s sad we even have to use that term. Isn’t it great that there are folks that are actually “anti-environment”?

  • Loriling

    My challenge is composting food waste here in Cambridge, MA. There’s is not weekly pick up like back home in SF. I live in an apt complex with not backyard, hence no space to put a compost bin. There’s a recycling center that takes compost but it’s far form my house (need to take a bus) and I really don’t want to haul my smelly compost on public transit, nor do I want to haul it to campus, which recently implemented single stream recycling and composting. SO the issue is one of infrastructure.

  • Anonymous

    “But lambasting Big Oil and sneering at Hummers can only get us so far.”

    But STILL hasn’t gotten us far enough. What most Americans fail to recognize is the inordinate amount of subsidies that go to oil! It drives me nuts when I see people talking about how the switch to renewable resources is “too expensive” when the subsidies and tax breaks that oil receives, at every level production, are through the roof. If oil is not the most heavily subsidized industry in the US, then it’s easily one of the top 3; then there are the clean up costs from disasters and “normal” environmental impacts that are also put on the taxpayers’ bill. The true cost of oil for Americans is VERY well hidden, by keeping it away from the pump.

    Just like every other issue before us, this is simply a matter of getting our priorities straight; are we going to continue to have oil be our financial priority, or are we finally going to make renewable resources our priority?

    And the same can be said of all the other issues mentioned here too. Organic farming doesn’t receive the subsidies that Agri-business does. In fact, corn is so heavily subsidized that it’s way overproduced and actually sells for less than it costs to make! Worse yet, the overproduction or waste produced by corn farmers in order to keep it dirt-cheap is dumped on our children through our schools, via contracts between the Dept. of Agriculture and the Dept. of Education. Again, should our priority be cheap unhealthy food, or healthy children?

    Bottom line is that due to all the things mentioned by people here, individuals can only do so much; it’s by corporate design, in cooperation with our government too. So while doing what we can does make a difference, what would make a much bigger difference is if Americans would educate themselves about how their tax dollars are being spent within our food production and energy industries, and then demanded from our representatives that appropriate changes be made!

  • Angie

    The comment in the article that if we switch to organic then the prices will come down is valid, but doesn’t really address the issue that many of us can’t afford to do that right now. We don’t have a lot of money and to try and make healthy choices along with stretching the food dollar means we can’t always choose exactly what we’d like. It then poses a vicious cycle with the prices of organic foods. As for choosing local produce, I would be very keen on that if there was a way to use my food stamps, as they are now in debit card format.

  • Shane T Bell

    When I was working I bought half of my produce from an organic grocer on the other side of town, and always bought biodegradable products that I needed and were available. I still unplug electronics that aren’t being used, but seeing as I live in an apartment (in a very hot climate), I can’t make the repairs necessary to keep the cold air inside this drafty place, so the AC stays on. Now that I’m unemployed, I rarely even have gas to go to that organic store across town, and haven’t bought anything organic since my income tax check. When your funds are low, you have to buy what you can afford and with the middle class going the way of the Dodo bird, you can expect more and more people to buy the cheapest goods there are.

    I’m sure it goes without saying that the cheapest goods are (usually) made with the cheapest, most toxic raw materials available. It’s either buy what harms the environment or do without altogether. Makes me wonder if capitalism and environmental friendliness can coexist at all.

  • Frankie Olivarria

    The lack of community is to blame. There just isn’t enough community because of all that fear we have for each other. This drops the sharing across people and thus nothing can get done correctly. That is one big culprit.

    Expense and the market is the other. Prices for organics as mentioned, IS just way out of proportion, it seems it only benefits those with the good pay and the organic producers, but not the poor or middle class (to some degree).

    I bought a small bag worth of organics at nearly 100 dollars. That is just insane, since I’m accustomed at such low prices. I could get 4-6 bags of groceries at the box store for that same amount of money.

    Here is the thing: those who want the environment saved and can only buy organic and such and say we are not just doing enough, well, I say don’t ask the poor man to help you out because he is stuck in a rot.
    As much as I try I cannot stick to purely organic and/or afford it and thus makes me cynical and care less about the environment from my frustration of such stupidity; that I must spend so much just to stay healthy and help the environment, I rather both of us go to you know where to save such aggravation.

    It is a big fantasy really. What should be done is a total shake up of infrastructure, idea and understanding.

    How ‘bout build a community for the 21st century that includes a communal garden so that we are forced to grow our own food, and those small shops next door.
    There should be hubs of communities that share goals, principles, a farm and happiness. Houses should be cheap, food should be cheap, and fun should be cheap. Alas that is such a Utopia that we left behind and missed the road on our way to consumerism and selfishness.

  • Woodswoman28

    My biggest challenge is time. I see many, many ways that I could live my life in a more eco-friendly way, and even save some money in the process. One example is making more food from scratch to eliminate the packaging that comes by purchasing thing. But as a working mother, I don’t have the time to take the extra steps.
    What helps me: Reading and learning to keep me motivated, remembering even if I can’t do it all perfectly green, every attempt helps, and the farmers market.

  • Jessica has made my life so much easier! The blog on the website details a couple’s experience with living garbage free for a year. I am environmentally minded and recycle/compost, but I was skeptical. However, after reading her weekly updates, I really began to see what a person can do and her experience kept reinforcing the notion, time and again, that the changes were not that hard (mostly because she had already done the research).

    My biggest challenge, right now is plastic. I cannot afford to ship my #5′s, and other plastics two hours to the city, which is the closest option for recycling. I also, know that plastic, even if it is recycled, eventually becomes trash that will never go away. Now, go walk around a “whatever” Mart and see all of the thousands of plastic containers that are already there, waiting to be used once (hopefully twice) and then mounded up into a heap that costs us $ to ship hundreds of miles to (for us it’s North Dakota). It is sickening, but what choices do we have??? And can a girl find basics like shampoo or toilet paper that don’t come wrapped in plastic at a major store? I can’t even buy one bar of soap at one of those stores that is wrapped in waxed paper because then they go and wrap those in plastic. California cannot even ban plastic one use grocery bags. Wouldn’t it be amazing if average consumers had the same voice as the lobbies? I’m tired of the companies blaming it on individual choices.

    I also found that gardening is often painted as this difficult, time consuming, scientific process. Then, we planted a garden, in Zone 3 Minnesota (barely a 90 growing season here) and it was SO EASY! It is not fast or perfect. Some of the plants don’t make it, so we plant extra, now, all grown without pesticides and herbicides. An hour to till, 1/2 hour to plant, 2 hours spent at a garden day seminar, and 1 hour of weeding. This year we watered twice. Much easier that the sixty hour week my husband would have had to put in with his job at Schwan’s, to buy the same amount of food. I think companies like to make things seem so hard and inconvenient so that we’ll go buy their supposed “convenient” product. Nothing is more convenient than walking down my sidewalk and picking a bowl full of green beans for supper. : )

  • jessica

    Have you heard of vermacomposting?

  • jessica

    Sorry that should have been spelled vermicomposting.

  • HazyJane

    I have never had any problem being “green”. If you love animals then you want to protect all natural environments. In turn caring for the environment influences one’s food choices. I have not eaten any animals in 27 years; have been using a reusable bag since the early 1980′s and refuse to drive.

    I am still slim and have a great figure as a result. The whole design of cities in North America are wrong. Not only do suburbs destroy the environment but cause people to rely on cars making them fat. It is all connected. I also did not produce children which is one of the best things one can do–and not eating meat.

    Most people refuse to do what is needed due to ignorance and cultural practices . For those that are willing to wake up, it is not difficult at all. Get up off your fat bums. You will find it very easy and ultimatley a sense of peace.

    God Bless and good luck

  • Atan44

    Mean must come with green, then.

  • Yankee_rose1955

    If you don’t own your home, you can’t really put up solar panels or make changes that will use less energy either….

  • Calypte Ascharna

    Agreed. My mother had 2 children, my family eats meat. However, we consider ourselves a very green family, care very deeply for the environment and are all in very good shape (despite being meat eating suburbians).

  • Calypte Ascharna

    I completely agree with the plastic complaint. It absolutely boggles my mind that first of all I cannot buy certain products without them being wrapped at least once in plastic, but that more often than not, things are in a plastic bottle, for example, then for some odd reason this is wrapped with a plastic sheet – i guess for some store special. Packaging is no longer functional nor reusable in too many sad cases, but instead it is complicated layers of barely recyclable material that are just there to make the product cost more.

  • Growth is not sustainable

    I would love to grow my own veggies, but I live in a condo.There’s only so much you can grow in pots.
    In my town there are large areas where failed businesses used to be (Leviitts, Monkey Wards), all boarded up and making everyone’s eyes sore.
    Instead of being a blight, I would love it if the city (Huntinton Beach) would buy this property and for a small fee, rent garden plots to the citizens.
    I’m opinionated, but no activist… but I’d sure like to see this happen. It’s been done elsewhere I know.