“You said you would help me think of a sustainability project. You haven’t done anything; I still don’t have one,” complained my friend from his habitual stretched-out position on my sofa.
“I said I’d help you figure out why you can’t get going on it. I’m just a catalyst, remember?” I corrected calmly from my own habitual position on the carpet before him.
He was referring to the project we all had to come up with after our corporate-sponsored volunteering program in India, to put into practice the knowledge that we had gained. It had been a deeply reflective two weeks in Sirsi, and everyone else did come up with quite personal and meaningful endeavours to work on. But my new friend struggled.
It wasn’t that he couldn’t think of something. It was more that he couldn’t think of something that he didn’t feel was just a checkbox to finish the program. Something he felt worthwhile to do, whose effect would last, and something he could put himself into. Not a project for the sake of doing a project. It was a valid point.
“OK, catalyse then. You’re the brilliant mastermind. Why haven’t I come up with something yet?” he challenged me.
The wheels begin to turn.
I paused, and considered.
Since we returned from India, I’d known him a couple months. Both of us newly moved to KL, in those first months we hung out quite a bit. Is there enough information? Why did he struggle so? And why did I not?
It’s true that I had not once attempted to keep my promise. But why not? I’m usually not one to leave things unfinished. And I really do usually have a facilitating effect on things that struggle to organise themselves. It just happens, somehow. It’s the kind of thing you don’t have to try to do.
I, too, did not know what sustainability project I could possibly come up with, that would be authentic to me, that I could commit to carrying out in the long-term, and whose effect would be lasting. But it came together somehow.
And our fellow volunteers. Some of them did not have much sustainability awareness in the beginning. A few were even a little sceptical. But by the end, they all thought of something that they felt sincere about.
Was there nothing to catalyse? I guiltily started to think as fast as I could.
Apparently, having knowledge is not enough.
What was the same between me and our fellow volunteers, but different from him?
It wasn’t as if my friend did not have sustainability knowledge. It actually seems difficult not to, if you are an Australian millennial or xennial. There were quite a few insights that I gained from conversations with him, in fact. This is mainly why I was so sorry when he was made to choose, and he chose not to be friends with me anymore.
It wasn’t as if he didn’t show an interest in acting on the knowledge, either. Although it was never quite clear to me whether the motivation was to acquire social approval, or genuinely from conviction.
He often spoke about making a change, giving to charity and choices related to animal ethics. But just as frequently, he also argued himself back out of action.
The difficult epiphany.
What was the same between me and our fellow volunteers, and with all the other sustainability advocates I know and respect, but different from him?
It often happens that my conscious mind would have completely forgotten to work on something, but my subconscious mind has got it covered all this while.
Just at the moment that my contrite conscious mind asked that question, the back offices of my subconscious mind handed over the completed analysis. And I knew the conclusion was true.
Oh, but how do I tell him that, conscious brain said. Above my pay grade, said subconscious, falling back into the background.
I considered him for a moment. He was still looking at me expectantly, a slight challenging smirk tugging at the edge of his mouth.
Maybe he can take it, I thought. Maybe, in this past year, I may have acquired enough diplomacy skills (not traditionally my strong suit).
I began gently.
I decided to go the indirect route. I spoke about our fellow volunteers, noting particular examples. About how they described their projects, and the thing that they all had in common.
How M-, S-, and a couple others spoke about how they felt they needed to. That they had no choice but to change, because it was crucial for the world their children would inherit one day.
A couple others admitted that their kids would probably be fine, through the fortunate geography of their birth – but then there were the children of others. My own motivation is close to this one.
And then there were those like M-d and V-, who spoke about how it was crucial for the future survival of their communities and countries, in Africa.
The truth of inequality. And what overcomes it.
You see, the reality was, we were all executive employees of a multinational company. We are probably among those who will be safest and most removed from the brunt of climate change impacts. Its full consequence may perhaps only occur after we personally have passed on.
But every single one of us came up with a change project anyway. And when we did, every single one of us was thinking of someone else. Not only that, we were thinking of someone else in the future. And not only that, we were choosing to love that future person more than ourselves today.
And I told him, very quietly, softening the message with a gentle smile, that I cannot help him think of a sustainability project, the meaningful kind he wanted.
Not until he can choose to love someone in the future, more than himself today.
The Very Definition of Sustainable
Yes, this advice is not just for becoming a sustainable traveller, but to become sustainable, period.
Probably all environmental professionals are aware of the ‘default’ definition of ‘sustainable development’: meeting the needs of the present, but without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
Inherently, a sustainability mindset requires us to consider other people, who are in the future.
Is it any surprise that it is so hard for most people to do? Psychologically, our lowest ‘animal brain’ just does not go that far. And it’s not like the main influences of our modern world encourage us to operate at a level much higher than this.
The fact is, for many people, it’s not done by a philosophical choice to love future human beings enough, that you would take inconvenience to yourself for their sake. Some do, but not most. It’s not because they grew to love nature so much, that they would change their lifestyle for its sake either. Some do, but not most.
From long years of watching people change, and listening in on various environmental fora as people come and go, the most common way perfectly ordinary people suddenly switch into a sustainability commitment, is when
(1) they accept knowledge about the implications of environmental issues to the future of the world, and
(2) when they realise their own children will live in that world.
And I realised, while the first one is a necessary precursor, it’s not enough to seal the deal for action. But even people ambivalent about the academics of the subject will learn, will sacrifice, and will override the social pressures that block change, because of love for their children.
Struggling against peer pressure.
I remember when I was in Perhentian, there was a little girl who would often come by the Blue Temple House.
One day, she came to me as I was walking by the village waterfront. She asked me to do a ‘cleanup’.
You see, the volunteers often organised cleanups in the village, especially with the schoolchildren. She rather enjoyed it. So, not wanting to dampen her positive association, I agreed. We picked up the waste plastic that we could see around the area, secured it in a nearby trash bin. I even went down on the rocks to go get a plastic bag that had fallen there, because otherwise ‘it will go in the sea and be bad for the turtles’. And afterwards I bought her ice cream.
We looked out to the channel in between the two Perhentian islands. There was a young man in a boat, a local boy from her own village. The teenager casually tossed a piece of plastic into the sea, which often happens in these rural island communities. In the past, all their waste were biodegradable, so this habit never really posed an issue. No more.
He’s throwing plastic in the sea, said the little girl, watching him. I agreed, watching her face.
There was confusion on it, the confusion of a little girl who had just picked up plastic waste, fretting over how wrong it was to leave it around. But here she was looking at who it was that was doing it. It was a face like her own face. She repeated it, and seemed suddenly unsure of whether it was in fact wrong.
So I affirmed it. And I added, we change ourselves first. We just focus on doing what we know is right. Later on, when you’re older, you can help them change too.
The pressure to conform.
Indeed, the faces of those who need to change are in the mirror. But the problem is, the first people who do so, in any given demographic, will have to face the tremendous pressure of being different from everyone else. Even if no one says anything, you will know.
Peer pressure is an equal opportunity phenomenon. It does not matter whether the dominant view is beneficial or not. It just enforces it – very well.
And I will tell you something else. The impulse to concede your own views to conform to the group’s interest is not an evil thing. It is in fact a very natural, human thing, that has great evolutionary value for our social species. That’s why the impulse is so strong.
Unfortunately, the truth is, no amount of wishful thinking will erase a program baked into us over a million years. It is much more sustainable to work with human nature rather than against. Find something just as natural, but is stronger. Figure out how to use that very same nature to support a better way.
Struggling against FOMO
Yes, this is a travel blog. And being a travel blog, it does advocate the value of travel for various reasons, such as growth and fraternity among mankind.
But in a travel-obsessed age, I do want to draw the line between travelling purposefully – whether the purpose is as light as a holiday break or as defining as a life milestone – and travelling because of the Fear of Missing Out. Key word is fear.
I first became acquainted with this psychology after meeting this friend of mine. Although actually, it is just a new face of an old fear, that is about human competition.
That you have to go everywhere, and do everything, because you don’t want to ‘miss out’. Especially if all your friends have done it – you don’t want to be the only one that hasn’t gone to Bali, or done full moon party in Thailand. Whether or not you actually are into those things yourself.
This is not travel, because of the value of travel. This is a status symbol, in the shape of travel.
I’m afraid life is all about missing out.
But, I said at the time, pointing out the obvious, but we only have so many years of life. It is logically impossible to do everything and go everywhere. You have to miss out. Life is a matter of choosing what to miss out on.
And credit to him, he was aware of his FOMO. But – he could not choose to ignore the pressure.
And, I added another rather obvious logic, by sampling many, but only briefly, not only is it not possible to sample everything, with a FOMO mindset you would by default miss out on experiencing those things that require time and commitment, but for greater reward. So why is there no fear in missing out on that?
He could not say. Even though, as a finance professional, he certainly understood the value of investing early, consistently, and for the long-term.
Fear is a hunger that cannot be appeased. Only conquered.
The thing is, the fear in FOMO is just like any other fear. It is a debilitation, a greed and a lust. It cannot be satisfied by appeasement. No amount of new things and keeping up will make it go away. And because we have a finite life, it has as a goal something that cannot be fulfilled.
But in trying, we can destroy the earth. Our landfills and our atmosphere, our seas and fellow earthlings bear the waste of our FOMO vanity and insecurity. Once it was cars and houses. Then fashion and technology. And now, travel and experiences. None of these things are evil in themselves. In fact there is good in each of them. It is only our greed for novelty that turns them into machines of destruction.
It is this fear that is exploited in capitalism and marketing (also two things that are not inherently evil, by the way – just rarely used for good). This fear that fuels consumerism and the cheap throwaway lifestyle.
This is why you cannot cultivate a sustainable mindset, as long as you have a fear of missing out.
Because invariably, a sustainable person has to say no to many things that are not needed today, so that people in the future still have something left with which to fulfil their needs.
To become sustainable, first of all – love.
After all, why else would you say no to yourself today, for random people who are not even here now to give you the stink-eye? And what else, can make you keep to this decision for the rest of your life?
I’m not saying not to love yourself. Indeed there are some who do love others more than themselves, but they achieve it by removing love for their own selves.
Does this method help you make more sustainable habit changes in your own life? Surprisingly, yes.
But it also makes you resentful of others who do not. This zero-sum martyrdom attitude makes you feel diminished and hopeless. And frankly, nihilism isn’t inspiring. This is the sustainability mindset whose logical conclusion is that human beings should eradicate ourselves from the earth.
Is that a valid solution for the sake of other life on earth? Yes, actually. Is it desirable, or even necessary? Not really, and probably not.
At any rate, I don’t know how long people can keep this up for – whether they could bear sustaining this usually youthful fervour for a lifetime. I haven’t heard of any still-active elderly environmentalists with this attitude. Try listening to Sylvia Earle, or Jane Goodall. No self-hate there.
Mindset of abundance.
Now the other way around is different. By all means love yourself – so that you know what you need and don’t need, and are strong enough to say no to peer pressure. Strong enough to tell your FOMO to FO. Then strong enough to love and empower others. And strong enough to act out of love for future people, in full assurance and security that you today are going to be just fine without numerous pointless things.
A mindset of abundance is not about consuming as if there’s no limit to the world’s resources. It is about the ability to feel indifferent to having to limit your appetite, because you feel sufficient.
In my first sustainable travel article, I said one of the two first habits was intention. It is not easy to have time left over for intention, if you’re constantly occupied with all kinds of things and activities that you don’t even know why you have, or are chasing.
So go ahead, have nice things.
But because you really love and enjoy them. Not because it’s trending, and everyone else has them. You will find you will end up with much fewer things, but which you cherish.
We don’t throw away things we genuinely love. They get repaired and we keep them long after they look more worn than the things we don’t care about. We actually learn about things we love – its art and its history, its craftspeople and its innovators.
So those things for which you would spend that much interest and effort, go ahead. Have them. Because you will care that these can continue to be made – and therefore the sustainability of its materials and its craft.
Go ahead, have a family.
Controversial for an environmentalist, I know. But I have observed how many people are changed, and become more capable of feeling the point of a sustainable lifestyle, when they became parents. Undermining this element of the human change experience is probably going to backfire.
But have a family if and when it’s right. Not because everyone else is, and you feel like you’re ‘late’. Not because the people before you did it, and had it at a certain size or time. Family sizes tend to decrease naturally as countries became wealthier, as it usually correlates with greater feelings of security.
Indeed, sustainably-minded parents today are building the knowledge for how to teach modern sustainability as a culture to children – a skillset in itself. Just like the knowledge for how to apply discoveries in psychology to help children with autism and other learning difficulties, was not developed and refined by academics – but by communities of parents of such children.
As a species, we cannot sustain a sustainability culture, unless we learn how best to pass it on into the future in the human way.
And go ahead, travel.
But not because you’re chasing someone else’s experience. Use those as inspiration, but travel for yourself. I suspect even most of us who claim a wanderlust will find we need much less of it, and yet (or because?) we feel much more satisfied.
Travel and get to know others in the world. In time, you will learn to love people. Even those stubborn ones. And those who aren’t like you. Those who don’t ‘understand’ what you ‘understand’. Those who ‘aren’t there yet’ or would only go partway.
Travel’s way of intensifying life brings into focus that love must always contain mercy or it’s not love. Its way of showing you the things we have in common shows you of the universality of love. And its way of confronting you with challenges to your existing beliefs, trains you in its unconditionality.
This is a shield against the bitter pride of self-righteousness, the imagination to love those who aren’t here yet, and a fuel that can keep you going – sustainably.
For the first two articles in this Sustainable Traveller series, see: