Please read this first...

If you want to know what I'm on about in the shortest time then please read the introductory first post and my current action plan. Comments are very welcome. And if you like this blog, please tell a friend. Thanks!

Sunday, 8 July 2007


There's a phenomenon in metal working called "springback". It's something you are probably already familiar with but may never have really thought about. Briefly, it's what a piece of metal might do when you attempt to bend it into a new shape: it will resist the change and spring back partly or completely towards the shape it started in. A guy I used to know worked as a fitter and turner, and he described how part of the skill of his job was to work out how much you had to bend something past where you wanted it to end up, so that it would spring back to the desired position.

It seems to me that similar effect can be seen in human behaviour.

There's a clear imperative upon us all to change our patterns of consumption and resource use. I've blogged about my efforts to conserve energy and water, to reduce waste and to cut down on GHG emissions in various ways. But I'm finding that after the initial pressure is applied to try and re-shape my behaviour there's a clear tendency to spring back towards the old ways again.

It affects different aspects of my behaviour to different degrees. I haven't checked the meters for a while but I think we're doing OK on the energy front. Water consumption will be up a little because with colder weather and plenty of stress from work and our new baby I'm being less disciplined about shower times. My car is now around a thousand kilometres behind my lease target (which is good for the environment and bad for my finances). But when it comes to Ice Break consumption... I'm failing big time.

I'm about as good a psychologist as I am a gardener (which means not very) but all this makes me wonder about the best ways to achieve the changes that we believe are needed to make human life a sustainable and positive component of life on Earth. Changing our behaviour is not really the goal: the responsible use of resources and the elimination of "waste" is the goal. Our behaviour tends to conform to the pressures placed on it. The challenge then is to work out how to maintain the pressure on our behaviour.

It's stretching the analogy a bit, but if I wanted a piece of springy metal to conform to a particular shape one of my options would be to brace it somehow. To trap it in a framework which didn't permit it to spring back to the shape it's naturally inclined to take. What's the equivalent in terms of human behaviour?

Perhaps instead of focusing on my behaviour and trying to convince others to behave like me, I should be putting the effort into changing the frameworks that guide people's behaviour - including my own. Those frameworks include social and personal values, education, policy, law and technology.

Hmm... switching mode now from essay to free-thinking blog post as I ponder what I've just been writing.

It seems to me that the primary driver for personal behaviour must surely be personal values. If so, that would imply that my failure to change behaviour in personal matters (such as limiting my Ice Break consumption as I had committed to do) comes down to a question of my own values. That I value the experience of drinking coffee-flavoured milk more highly than the environmental benefits gained by reducing my consumption. And that would probably be because the benefits of drinking it are personal, immediate and known whereas the benefits of reducing consumption are dispersed, delayed and unknown.

I would guess that same comparison could be applied just about universally in regard to the ways we all choose to live our lives. To take it to the extreme, not many of us would voluntarily live a life of poverty and hard labour in order to better the lives of others. Those people who do live lives according to those kinds of principles tend to be venerated rather than emulated.

It all comes down to the question of why we do anything at all, I suppose. For me, at this point in time, the basic motivation is something along the lines of having the best life I can whilst simultaneously promoting the best lives possible for everybody else who lives now and who will live in the future. The attitude is more one of teamwork than of charity, but it's forever difficult to try and balance my quality of life with that of everybody else when both are essentially unquantifiable.

I seem to have settled on some core principles though, including one I mentioned earlier: "the responsible use of resources and the elimination of waste".

I'll leave it there for now. Something to ponder and possibly post about another time.

No comments: