Liz Lyons from Melbourne is one person who definitely didn’t consider herself or her friends, activists.
“I’d never go to rallies or anything like that,” Liz said.
“No disrespect to anyone who did, I just thought that wasn’t me, that’s not something I would be a part of.”
But when the 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report sounded a dire warning of what climate change has in store for the near future, Liz said something changed in her.
“It really came home to me last year when the IPCC report came out,” she said.
As well as attending climate change protests, Liz hosted a dinner party for her friends, where a speaker came to talk about climate change.
Leading up to that event, Liz said she was still a bit nervous about how some of them might respond.
“I remember saying to friends, ‘don’t worry, it won’t be too full on’,” she said.
‘You try and remove the barriers as much as possible’
Although her friends’ reaction to the dinner was positive, and they’ve been supportive of her stance on climate change, Liz hasn’t convinced any to come with her to protests.
And she still doesn’t identify with the “activist” label.
“No, I don’t really — as much as there’s been a degree of activism in what I’ve done thus far.”
“And not because I’m scared of those titles, but more because it would feel a bit disingenuous.
But in opening up a discussion about climate change with her friends, Liz has in a small way helped to normalise that position amongst her peers.
Knowing that she’s not one to jump on any old bandwagon, she said her friends were interested by an issue that she obviously was taking seriously.
Normalising something is a big part of making social change, Planet Ark deputy CEO Rebecca Gilling told RN Life Matters.
“You try and remove the barriers as much as possible, and really importantly you try and create what are called ‘social norms’,” Ms Gilling said.
But in standing up and being outspoken among her friends, Liz is a bit of an exception to the rule.
‘We’re much more conformist than we like to think we are’
A small study was recently conducted on people from Perth who self-identified as “attempting to live a sustainable lifestyle”.
A number of the participants said they were frustrated by the systemic structures that forced them to make unsustainable lifestyle choices — designing cities around car ownership, for example.
And although they engaged in them, they were also sceptical that small, individual changes could make a big difference, said social scientist Zoe Leviston, who co-authored the study.
“They were frustrated that the solutions to sustainability are often consumption solutions — you can buy yourself green, buy an electric car, buy a green, ecofriendly product.”
But while the participants wanted to see big, structural changes, they didn’t want to cross the line into “activism”, Dr Leviston said.
“[We asked] what can we do about these systemic problems? What about collective action?”
“So there was like, ‘oh yeah, I’m sustainable but I’m not one of those people’. Or, ‘oh no I wouldn’t do that, and in fact I’m very careful when I talk around my friends because I don’t want to appear preachy’.
“So we had this paradox where people knew that there were systemic problems in how we organise our social and economic systems, but [they had] this absolute distancing from that more collective-action identity”.
Part of the reason is that we don’t want to stray too far from the group, Dr Leviston said.
“For most of us, we’re quite conformist actually, we’re much more conformist than we like to think we are.”
“So if you have these collective action protests that are seen as fringe, then we tend to shy away from it, because we secretly want people to conform.”
We’re not very good at knowing what others think
But could we be avoiding acting on environmental issues because we think they’re more fringe than they actually are?
When it comes to climate change at least, a study by the CSIRO that Dr Leviston was part of, found that may be the case.
When a cohort of people were asked whether they thought climate change was happening, between just 6 and 7 per cent said they didn’t think it was, Dr Leviston said.
“What we did after we asked that question, is we asked people, ‘OK, where do you think the Australian public sits? What proportion of the Australian public fits into [the climate-change denial category]?”
“The estimate was that about 25 per cent — about a quarter of the Australian population — denied that climate change existed.”
In fact, we’re bad at estimating a whole lot of things about our own and others’ lives, according to Ms Gilling.
“It’s not just about environmentalism. We also overestimate how much exercise we do, we underestimate how much food we consume and how much alcohol we consume,” she said.
“So we tend to be overly optimistic across all these areas.”
Similar to the Perth study, research commissioned by Planet Ark has found that people are less likely to engage on issues that might be considered fringe.
Even for issues that people might feel strongly about, they’re less likely to engage with them if they feel it could lead to them being ostracised.
Collective action could be as simple as joining a community garden
Australians have one of the biggest environmental footprints per person of all the OECD countries.
Collective action is much more powerful way of achieving a more sustainable society than making individual changes such as buying reusable coffee cups or using reusable straws, according to Dr Leviston.
“Collective action takes many forms. It’s not necessarily chaining yourself to a tram outside Flinders Street Station. It could mean joining your local gardening group as well.”
“Collective efficacy” refers to a phenomenon where we’re more likely to engage in an activity and stick with it long term, if we think we’re part of a group, according to Ms Gilling.
“So for example in the ABC’s War on Waste, you saw how when you got a community together, a street, and looked at what rubbish they generated and how much they recycled, their behaviours changed over a period when they compared themselves to one another,” she said.
For Liz, her perspective on environmentalism changed when confronted by facts.
“It’s a funny one. I think traditionally I’d been guilty of seeing the term ‘greenie’ as a negative term,” she said.
“But when I had this revelation about how bad things were … my mind changed, I realise I’d been wrong.”
But many people won’t make that leap.
Instead, we need to change the perception of sustainable collective action from “activist” to mainstream, Ms Gilling said.
“Changing the discourse around pro-environmental behaviours and encouraging people to feel as though they’re part of a community that’s doing the right thing, are really important ways in which we try and move towards a more sustainable society.”