Alec Mitchell doesn’t like praise for what he’s doing. Not for loaning out reusable coffee mugs at farmers markets near his Arcata, California home, nor running a compost collection service on a bike, nor renting out dishware at events to discourage disposable plates. Mitchell spent months sleeping in a tent on the beach to conserve housing-related resources. He never, ever gets in a car.
“Great job!” so many would say. “You’re doing such wonderful work!”
But the cars and the disposable coffee cups don’t seem to diminish, so the praise feels meaningless. “You try and you try and you try, and you don’t know what you can do, so you do what you can,” he told me over the phone. (We had to plan the call in advance, as Mitchell does not keep his cellphone on unless he knows he needs to use it, to conserve battery life.)
Why keep it up? Why be such a weirdo? What can you possibly change?
Even within the environmental movement, there’s a fraught and often ugly debate over people like Mitchell, who radically change their lives to fight climate change. Critics say they are wasting their time and scaring away the critical audience of the unconverted. Major voices in the climate movement are dismissive of the choice to, say, forego a major flight. Why sacrifice, they chide; focus on what matters.
But Mitchell has also worked on the kind of systemic change that many environmentalists would criticize him for distracting from. He’s volunteered for habitat restoration, worked at the local recycling facility, run for local office, knocked on doors for voter registration campaigns. He’s just upset that for so much talk about wanting to fight climate change, most people don’t reflect it in their daily lives.
As much as policy shapes behavior, a mass shift in behavior can push policy and change the world. The shift has to start somewhere — and it starts with the weirdos.
Mitchell, who is 25, would have fit right in at a radical cooperative that existed a few hundred miles south in San Francisco in 1970: Ecology Action. The group espoused an “environmental awareness starts at home” ideology: reuse everything, bike everywhere, mend and compost and say no to meat. In an organizational manifesto, Ecology Action described their activities as “doing new things for new reasons.”
In 2018, Ecology Action has grown up into an advocacy organization behind a lot of pro-climate legislation in California. And, nearly a half-century later, the activities they “lived” are no longer new. (One could easily argue that they were never new — they’re simply resurrecting the old.) They’re not even particularly strange.
But neither are they remotely mainstream — which is mind-boggling to people like Mitchell in the face of runaway climate change. While vegetarian and vegan options proliferate, only about 3 percent of U.S. adults don’t eat meat. Bike share programs have multiplied by a factor of nearly 90 since 2010, but they struggle to survive and are criticized for only reaching a small, elite portion of urban populations. The amount of stuff an average person throws away peaked in 2000 and recycling rates are on the up-and-up — but we still don’t even know how to do that that well.
Still, these commitments persevere in different houses, on different streets, on different social media accounts. Because there is still the hope that the environmental awareness that starts at home (particularly as “home” expands in the digital age) can be contagious.
Behavior normalization is a powerful driver of climate-conscious lifestyles. A 2014 study in the International Journal of Psychology examined the values, social forces, and personality traits that correlate with pro-environment actions. “If one believes that the ‘usual thing to do’ is to recycle, one is likely to recycle,” the authors write. (The most important “usual things” to change, according to a major study last year, include our diets and transportation habits.)
Basically, in “norm activation theory,” we make decisions based on our sense of personal moral obligation, expected consequences, and, significantly, the expectations of our peers. It’s why it’s easier to quit smoking if people around you quit smoking.
Peter Kalmus, a climate scientist, has transformed his own lifestyle based on moral obligation (save humanity from climate change) and the consequences of his actions (everything we do makes the climate change a tiny bit more). Now, he’s working on changing that whole “expectations of our peers” part.
Kalmus described to me his “climate awakening” moment: As a physics grad student at Columbia University, he attended a James Hansen talk on the idea that the Earth absorbs more heat than it releases — a death sentence for everyone on the planet. But immediately after the talk, he went to lunch with his classmates and tried to talk about this impending doom, and no one seemed to care.
That is the entire point of Kalmus’ book, Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution. In his opinion, there wasn’t a satisfying discussion of what a regular person can do to fight climate change so he set out to create a point of reference, a guide, for anyone nervous and curious. When I told him it’s currently on a deep wait list at the Seattle library, he laughed delightedly.
This is what he did: He challenged himself to de-fossil-fuel his own lifestyle in all the most important ways. First, flying less. (“Hour for hour, there’s no better way to contribute to climate change than to get on a commercial plane,” he says.) Then, vegetarianism. (“I felt lighter, more energetic.”) Then, even in the suburbs, giving up his motorcycle for a bicycle. And after that, it became a sort of game. He asked: “What are the most radically emissions-free lifestyle changes that I can make, and still enjoy myself?”
For Shia Su, it started with the Cake Invasion. That was the name of her baking blog, which gradually turned vegan as she began to experiment with that most maligned of diet choices. (“It took a couple of years; I’m not very good with change,” she confides. “I always need to ease into things.”) She wanted to challenge herself to create vegan baked goods that were as delicious as their dairy-laden counterparts: Perfectly moist chocolate cakes, flaky apple pies, delicate puddings made of tofu. It became an obsession.
Cake Invasion spurred her interest in things like palm oil boycotts and, eventually, the zero-waste movement, which launched the spinoff blog Wasteland Rebel. (Not to be confused with the model of assault rifle.) There, Su documented the various measures that she and her husband implemented to not use any disposable things: housing everything in glass jars; bringing their own containers to get restaurant takeout; buying as much as possible from the bulk foods section. It became a challenge to see how much they could cut down, and, again, an obsession.
The Wasteland Rebel Instagram account — a sunlit grid of wholesome grains in glossy glass jars, exquisite rainbow arrangements of farmers market produce, and cloth-swaddled loaves of bread — has 60,000 followers. In fact, there’s an entire #zerowastemovement Instagram community rife with accounts such as these.
“I think the first time people hear about ‘zero waste,’ it’s seen as this hippie thing,” Su says. “The notion is that it’s a bit dirty and not mainstream enough, so people just dismiss the idea as something that crazy people do! Making it visually appealing speaks to so many more people. They think, ‘I want a beautiful home, I want a beautiful pantry, I can do that.’ Because it is doable!”
Su experienced a lot of resistance to both going vegan and zero waste when she started. A close friend and her mother, in particular, were insistent that they weren’t going to be converted by her behavior. But then, gradually, they began to adopt those practices themselves, sans any insistence or even encouragement from Su — simply by being around her. The friend started sending photos of how little trash she accumulated in a week; her mom became a devotée of the organic foods bulk section.
The shift in environmentally inclined behavior from “gross hippie” to “aspirational” is something that Kalmus, the climate scientist, hopes for.
But there are some pitfalls, too, in the aspirational approach. For example, urban biking advocacy organizations have been criticized for selling cycling as an “urban chic” activity, alienating the lower-income cyclists that actually make up the majority of the national biking community.
This comes back to the great bugaboo of the environmental movement: That it’s associated with whiteness and wealth. People of color very rarely see themselves reflected in the messaging of some of the most significant individual-level environmental changes, like biking.
Bike share is one CO2-fighting tool in the urban transit arsenal, and it’s struggled in a lot of cities, because people aren’t using it. And the ones that do tend to be white, wealthy-ish, and from out of town. But Kerdia Roland, a 25-year-old African-American bike delivery messenger was the No. 1 user of Chicago’s Divvy bike share system in 2017. It wasn’t to save the climate, but because it fit his lifestyle.
The Chicago Reader reported that Roland clocked in over 6,000 miles of rides on the powder-blue, 50-pound “tourist bikes” while making deliveries around an endless city that is seasonally unbearable in both summer and winter. Six thousand miles, for context, is roughly the bikeable length of South America.
Roland adores traversing the city on two wheels, no matter the weight of them. He feels freer, healthier, happier, more in tune with his city. And he loves to talk to people about it, particularly in neighborhoods of color, where he gets a lot of “outlandish looks” until he starts a conversation. “If there are more bikers, the city’s gonna want to take care of them — if it gets to be a large enough demographic,” he explains.
At the end of our call, he thanked me for asking about his experience. “I usually am really listening to people in all of these conversations” about bike sharing, he says. “I don’t get that many opportunities to do the majority of the talking. This is a breath of fresh air.”
Let’s go back to Alec Mitchell. He enjoys his lifestyle, but he is frustrated that other people don’t, and this is the first mistake — if a very understandable one.
In the New York Times feature on the radical collective Ecology Action, a girl was quoted: “Every time I go visit the Humphreys, they make me feel like a pig.” So much environmental behavior is seen as threatening, judging, morally superior. (Look no further than public perception of vegans.)
That is because it challenges norms. But, Alec, pal, the norms are changing, even if you can’t see it directly in front of you. Biking across freezing cities and Instagram accounts fetishizing grain organization (!) are actually beloved — because enough people, relatable people, happy people, find genuine joy in doing those things, and they are sharing that with others.
Take a deep breath, abandon some of your frustration with the people who haven’t caught up, and be the weirdo you want to see in the world. And just love being that way. It will become contagious.