By Naomi Carter, GLOBUS Correspondent
It was with some trepidation that I unpacked my Chilly bottle, charity shop crockery and reusable silicone lids on the first day of Freshers’ Week, preparing to start GSD as a degree. Would my flatmates judge me? Would they think they have some crazy sustainability preacher living with them?
As someone who wears their heart on their sleeve, especially when it comes to things I feel passionate about (like sustainability), I knew keeping my mouth shut would be challenging. So I decided not to.
Hoping that the odd comment about palm oil, single use plastics and charity shopping wouldn’t make me ‘Flat Enemy Number 1’, I began the first of many vegan batch cooks for the freezer.
Happily, as far as I know, I’m not Flat Enemy Number 1. There have been some conversations about sustainability that can only be described as ‘interesting’, but I see it all as progress. A charity shop crawl has already been pencilled in and the sceptics of non-dairy milks have experienced the transformative power of hazelnut milk (which, as an aside, is like drinking a healthy form of liquid Nutella). These make up some very small changes, I know, but I hope that every time we mention it, a little seed of thought is planted in the kitchen group.
It’s fun to talk to my new flatmates and friends about sustainability. But it’s also hard. Even a battle at times – like the 3am defence of sustainable development during a slightly heated debate about whether our degrees are worthwhile.
This led me to wonder; why is it a battle? Why should I seemingly be in the minority when it comes to caring, talking and taking action about climate change and related sustainability challenges? How and why do people react the way they do?
The first reaction I tend to get is surprise. I saw this when I began to explain what palm oil is, how environmentally damaging it is and how it is in *literally* everything. Palm oil is the most commonly produced vegetable oil in the world and is thought to be contained in half of all supermarket products. Responsible for deforestation, biodiversity loss and the displacement of smallholders and indigenous peoples, few people are aware of the ubiquitous and harmful nature of palm oil.
This surprise can tend to lead to distancing (and that’s emotional, not social). A flatmate will say ‘oh I know I’m ignorant but it’s just easier that way’ – an attitude that, whilst I understand, kills me inside. This has been explained with the term ‘climate anxiety’: when faced with an existential threat, humans develop a sense of paralysis that can lead to complete or ‘micro’ denials.
So if denial or ignorance is one coping mechanism, banter is another. Being taken the mick of was something I was prepared for – palm oil became the mickey take. And although it did make me laugh when someone responded with ‘a bottle of palm oil’ to my offer to do some shopping, I also wonder why it is that humour is used as deflection of more serious issues.
Unsurprisingly, there is always the defensive reaction, especially when it comes to food and having a plant-based lifestyle amongst dedicated meat eaters. The inconsistencies of my ‘flexi-vegan’ diet have been picked up upon, but I take the stance that having a mainly plant-based diet is better than doing nothing at all, with research suggesting that reducing meat intake is the most effective action individuals can do for the environment. This defensiveness is likely to be the reaction to feeling threatened – with both the long term existential threat of climate change and the short term threat of having to make sacrifices, such as not eating a favourite food. Humans dislike taking responsibility for harmful actions and are, evolutionarily, highly motivated to avoid threats.
Other potential reasons for this denial of the importance of climate change include: our brains’ ability to create ‘cognitive shields’ and convince us that business as usual is okay; ‘discounting’, the idea that we undervalue the effects of climate change because they are distant from us in terms of time or space; and the short-term vs long-term trade-off, with decades of study showing that people overvalue short term issues (such as how much a product costs) compared to long term (the cumulative effect of individuals buying that product).
These factors make up some of the many complex and somewhat contested reasons why individuals are able to distance themselves from climate change, and why my flatmates have put up some resistance to my sustainability ethos. We are all affected by social and psychological processes out of our control and none of us are perfect. But that’s okay.
After all, there’s an entire year to keep sustainability high up on the agenda in the kitchen. Let’s wait and see…