Sustainability, change and fiction

Lego HELP: LibbyO CC BY-SA-NCThe Conundrum is a book by David Owen. It puts forward the thesis that in this world of over-consumption, we’re going about reducing it the wrong way. Efficiency, he suggests, doesn’t reduce, but rather increases consumption. It gives us an excuse to keep consuming.

An example: we choose a car that is hybrid or has a 1.2 litre engine, which therefore uses less fuel. We feel virtuous about our choice and therefore don’t feel the need to change our petrol consumption behaviour. This is not a sustainable solution.

So how, then, do we bring about sustainable change?

Positive reinforcement

One approach towards the reduction of consumption is the Nudge theory. An example would be when supermarkets ask shoppers to pay for plastic bags in order to encourage people to recycle or bring their own; there is a direct financial consequence for not bringing your own bag.

From the Wiki (referring to a paper from the UK Political Studies Association):

“Nudge” suggests that positive reinforcement and/or suggestion can influence the motives, drivers and decision making of groups and individuals alike, at least as – if not more efficiently than [–] direct instruction, legislation, or enforcement. [Wikipedia]

There is some suggestion that governments are in a perfect position to administer and leverage Nudge programs en masse, but the question remains: is positive reinforcement a good way to effect change in the long term? Is it okay to support scientific and technological initiatives that reduce consumption in the short term?

Changing habits

Being ‘konzequent’, as they say in the German-speaking world, is a tried and true way of steering the behaviour of children. If your kid leaves their shoes outside in the snow, they’ll be wet the next day. Suck it up. Unfortunately, this approach times out around age 16, when Care Factor Zero kicks in. But, as a parent, I’d say that’s a pretty good window to have at your disposal. After that, however, we’re talking about changing motivations, which is slightly different.

Action follows motive

In writerly circles, you’ll often hear people say, show, don’t tell. And there’s a reason for this. How a person acts within their context can tell us a lot about the attitudes they hold, and values they have. Action shows us the motives of the actor in terms we all understand. The insides of our heads are tangled, mystifying places. But when you can put desire and emotion into the realm of the concrete – action – you are speaking a language we all understand. (To varying degrees, of course.)

So where does fiction fit in?

Fiction is a good place to start if you want to inspire change because although reading is most often a solitary pursuit, the experience – the journey we travel, emotionally and intellectually – prepares us for living. It has the power to show us new ways of approaching real-life problems, albeit in an imagined setting. It gives us blueprints for new behaviours and responses, and it can be a great reminder of the impact of life’s injustices. It can move us to change.

Use your power for good, Luke

Carl Hiaasen is an example of an acclaimed writer of eco-fiction* for kids (*a term not used by Hiaasen himself).

“Propaganda?” I hear you ask.

It’s a fine line. As I’ve said before, fiction embodies its creator’s politics, values and attitudes, overt or not. But readers are savvy. We know when we’re being preached to. We can sniff out an agenda. Which is why overt agendas in fiction stink. (Hiaasen’s work doesn’t stink, by the way.)

So what is the real impact of e-reading on the environment? 

I love hard copy. Always will. But if we’re talking about sustainability and fiction: what about the forests? Indeed. And what about the annual tonnes of electronic landfill we get from e-reading devices (phones, pods, pads)? As our reading and story consumption habits change, so does the impact.

Penelope Trunk reckons the current parent generations (call them what you will – Trunk is known best for coining the Y and X labels) have the best writing skills of any generation. She also reckons we’re in for a generation of YouTubers as Gen Z shift towards video as a medium for transmitting and searching for ideas.

That may well be. And what the environmental impact of this is I can’t tell. But, in the words of Joni Mitchell, ‘Everything comes and goes,’ and my view is that as long as we’re writing and constructing stories – however they manifest themselves – we have an important element in the frame for sustainable change.

1 Comment

  1. Unfortunately I think that is dead right about efficiency and consumption; not a great place for us consumers. I also agree about the importance of stories in action and change. Of course I’m biassed but I loved the environmental sub plot in Jonathon Franzen’s ‘Freedom’. (It’s about saving birds.) As a teacher I also know if we wrap something in narrative, it has a much stronger chance of sticking.

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