Ideas on Communication

Guest Blog from Office Intern and MES/MPA graduate student Tripp McElwee

I was messy as a youth.  Very messy.  My room was constantly a wreck, littered with dirty clothes, candy wrappers, and whatever toys I was interested in at the time.  My parents would constantly tell me to clean it up.  Sometimes it was asked nicely, sometimes it was firmly bellowed, and sometimes it was screamed, but it never worked.  I was never told why I needed to clean my room, I was just told to clean it up.  In my mind it was a schedule:  create mess, receive punishment, clean room, create mess… repeat.  The rate of ascension of my parent’s anger was only paralleled by the rate of crap piling up in my room. 

As a college student, I began to realize that my messiness actually negatively impacted my life.  A lack of organization of my possessions led to me looking for things all the time, this led to being late all of the time, causing frustration and scattered thoughts.  It wasn’t until my early twenties that I learned there is a reason for being organized; you are more calm, more efficient, and a generally more effective adult.  Whenever I truly understood this I developed the proper habits to become the relatively clean, organized individual I am today.

Good for you Tripp, what does this have to do with sustainability?

Changing habits is difficult, and people generally do not change them by being commanded or accused of doing the wrong thing.  Change comes through understanding.  As much as I love my dear sweet parents, the best thing they could have done when I was a youth is sit down and discuss sincerely the reasons why organization is important.  Maybe it would have worked, and maybe it wouldn’t, but it was the only real chance at changing my behaviors.  For me, sustainability isn’t actually about changing habits, it’s about changing paradigms.  If thought processes are changed, then the habits will follow.  If a citizen or a business is commanded to recycle their paper and plastic without any ideological backdrop, it is unlikely to continue for very long.  If a citizen sees the Charleston County Landfill with their own eyes and understands the finite dimensions of waste disposal, it may lead to a much more sustainable solution:  a change in ideology.

I have often been frustrated by environmentalist’s accusatory tones when communicating with people who think differently from them.  One that truly wants to make macro changes in public opinion must understand that this type of communication will only further alienate those with differing views.  Creating more sustainable systems will occur through leading by example, and positivist education, not through apocalyptic sermons and accusation.  If you believe in a more sustainable future like I do, lead by example, strap on a smile and educate your friends and co-workers.  In time, the room might start to clean itself up.

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