Not long after moving to New Mexico, I felt so lonely. It wasn’t because of lacking friends or just being in a new environment; it was a different kind of pain that left me feeling isolated.
I thought that my new community, local and extended, did not share my values – specifically, environmental stewardship. First impressions are strong and not easily undone, so when I saw the lack of recycling infrastructure, and could not find any facility in my region that could collect compost, and saw lush green lawns in neighborhoods even though we live in a desert region, I was all but set up for heartbreak already when a local friend said to me, “Why bother with recycling? We have plenty of space here for landfills, so what’s the problem?”
Values can be sensitive to address directly. They are deeply held beliefs that aren’t derived from logic, but from emotions and a sense of morality.
I can construct a logical argument about a specific issue, such as the importance of composting…
- Approximately 30 – 40% of landfill waste is biodegradable
- When these materials degrade in landfills, it is an oxygen-free environment, so they produce methane, a key contributor to climate change
- When these materials are composted (i.e. not in an oxygen-free environment), they absorb carbon and also become a valuable resource for our farming communities
…but if at the end of the day, you don’t believe environmental stewardship is your responsibility, or care about the state of the planet beyond your lifetime, then these arguments will not reach you. The underlying values are responsibility beyond the self; that loving and caring relationships between each other and all that we interact with is the best, most gracious way to live and engage our world.
“Tragedy of the Commons is the story of depleting a collective resource that no party feels individually responsible for maintaining. It is most easily recognizable in the destruction of our natural resources – whether overharvesting fisheries and forests, polluting air and water, or exhausting valuable topsoil.”David Peter Stroh, Systems Thinking for Social Change
The question I focused on (which, it turns out, was not entirely the right question) was: how do I live in alignment with my own values in a community that does not support them? This led me to think deeply about the process of examining beliefs and the ways they might differ from others around you.
Learning is More Powerful than Knowing
Listening and learning always comes first. Your values are worth periodically re-examining. If you want others around you to learn and grow and transform and, gasp, change their minds, lead by example and do so yourself when appropriate.
“The inherent and ever-changing complexity of social problems forces people to accept that knowledge is never complete or static. Learning is a more powerful mind-set than knowing because it enables us to keep adapting in the face of new information and conditions.”David Peter Stroh, Systems Thinking for Social Change
Hypocrisy stems from lack of self-reflection and the fact that humans are messy, illogical creatures, led first by our emotions and later justified by our logic.
Jonathan Haidt, an NYU psychologist, uses the analogy of “the elephant and the rider.” The elephant is our emotional side, the rider is our rational side. The rider may appear to be in charge, but in a disagreement, the elephant usually wins – and the rider, at best, can post-rationalize the direction they’re heading. [See: The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.]
Before You Knew, You Didn’t Know
After reflecting on what you’ve learned: communicate and educate.
I have this terrible habit of assuming that once I learn something, everyone must already know it – not out of a sense of arrogance, but insecurity. I carry this self-conscious worry that I’ll share information, only to find it is old news and that everyone has already known this fact forever.
“Hempel: I kept expecting and I keep waiting for that to dissolve as I grow up, as if the wisdom of my adulthood as it deepens will remove that insecurity, and it’s not happening yet.
Ahrendts: Yeah no, I don’t think so either. But I think what you do is you get stronger and more confident in who you are and what your gifts to this world are, and you keep yourself in a narrow lane, knowing that if I stay in this lane, I will make the contribution that I’m supposed to make when I’m on this planet.”Hello Monday podcast, Jesse Hempel interviewing Angela Ahrendts
When teaching, vagueries are not helpful. Specifics are. “We should make eco-friendly decisions because it’s the right thing to do” is not going to convince anyone who doesn’t already agree. “Recycling glass instead of making it from silica sand reduces mining waste by 70%, water use by 50%, and air pollution by 20%” on the other hand, just might.
Seek and Build Your Community
It turns out that my read of the community was too simple to be true. What I perceived at first was not an accurate representation of the community’s values because it’s too easy to misattribute intentions to strangers. Before judging, I needed to spend more time seeking out like-minded individuals, instead of assuming my experience was representative of the whole.
I have since met with multiple members of the New Mexico Recycling Coalition, learned more about the obstacles facing our specific communities, and re-lit my optimism that the momentum of progressive change is carrying us ever onward.
“We hurt ourselves and the world around us when we fail to recognize and cultivate our essential connectedness. …From this viewpoint, systems thinking can be viewed as the work of enabling people to make connections in service of the whole.”David Peter Stroh, Systems Thinking for Social Change
The lack of infrastructure is still a huge problem. It took me three months of searching to find a composting facility within driving distance, where I now drop off my compostables once a week – and what if I didn’t have a car or the means? This option is inaccessible to many demographics, a far cry from the mandatory, curbside pickup of compostables in my previous home in Vancouver. Convenience is a huge influence on human behavior and necessary for large-scale social change. In terms of infrastructure, I am living up to my values in spite of my environment, rather than being supported by my environment.
But the heartbreak? Growing pains on the path to progress. There are many who are working towards the greater global good. In my initial loneliness, I just didn’t know where to look.
“Some people are more certain of everything than I am of anything.”Robert Rubin, In an Uncertain World