Ever since I became convinced of the need to move to a more sustainable way of living, I’ve been looking for answers as to how it can be made to happen, given that most of the developed world would just prefer to keep on doing what they’re doing (and understandably so, given how comfortable it is for most of us). I spent a lot of time looking for some magic strategy that would effect the transformation. As far as I can tell, there isn’t one. But there are many smaller strategies, and working together they can work towards the shift that we need.

The good thing, and the bad thing, about many actions having an effect is that means that everyone can do their piece. Good, because we can all do what we’re capable of. Bad, because we can’t offload it and say that it’s out of our control, that there’s nothing we can do. It’s also bad because it’s often hard to see that the effects of our actions have any effect at all. There’s no spotlight, no flashing lights that say we’ve conquered the game, usually nothing at all except what goes on in our heads.

But it does have an effect, even if it’s one that we can’t see right away. There are a few reasons for this. The first is social norms. We are tremendously influenced by what other people do, whether we recognize it or not, and usually we don’t unless we’ve set out to notice their working. In new situations we may consciously look, out of the corners of our eyes, at what others are doing in order to see what to do, but even in our daily lives, the evidence of others’ actions and how we will be thought about for ours governs what we do. The presence of litter in an empty parking lot encourages us to drop that flyer stuck to the windshield, a clean environment doesn’t. Everyone setting out their recycling along the street makes us not want to show the glass poking out of our garbage cans. And this can work for us when we do something sustainable – when people see what we do, it encourages them to do the same, especially if they can identify with us in some way.

What we do, and what we talk about, also affects others by just showing that it is possible, even if it does not necessarily activate social norms (or at least not primarily). When I see solar panels or a green roof on a house in the neighbourhood, I start wondering if does make sense to do that after all, even though there is no feeling that I ought to do so or that anyone will think poorly of me for not doing it. Or, before living here in the Netherlands I rode a bicycle fairly regularly in Vancouver, but I would have never dreamed how much can be accomplished on one. Seeing the wide range of things and people that can be transported makes me try it too. Similarly, me telling people about the train/bus pass we have for our kids may encourage others to get one and then drive less often.

There are also several reasons why just doing things can enable a shift within ourselves. One reason is what’s called cognitive dissonance. This is the effect that shows up when our actions don’t fit our thoughts – one of them has to change or to be explained in order to maintain our internal consistency. The experiment that first showed this had the subjects do a boring task for an hour, and then gave them either $5 or $20 to tell the “next group” that it was interesting. They found that those given $5 were more sincere and, later, actually believed that it was more interesting. They had had to change their views in order to justify lying to a stranger – the ones who had received $20 could easily use the money as justification. What this means for sustainability is that if people do things they believe to be good for sustainability, even if just because of social norms or because it looks cool, and especially if they’re not receiving tangible reinforcement for the action, than they come to see themselves as sustainable people. Which leads to the spillover effect.

This effect is that if we do one thing, we often tend to do others in the same area. So, doing one thing for sustainability often leads to doing more, perhaps because we’ve changed our perception of ourselves, or perhaps just because we see how the first has positively impacted our lives and want to do other similar things, or maybe even because doing the first brings us into a position to easily do the second through proximity.

On a societal level, there is what is called the diffusion of innovation curve for new actions or ideas. This s-shaped curve starts out slow – the early adopters find something and do it, then the slightly less adventurous follow until, in a rush, it gets disseminated through most everybody, until only the laggards are left, some of whom finally get around it to it, and some of whom never bother to join in. Going back to the solar panel example – right now there are a few houses with them in my neighbourhood – the early adopters. If I and a few others add them, eventually it may tip to the point where almost everyone is doing it. This process has been seen in Germany and Australia.

There is also the possibility that personal actions can affect policy. If policy makers see that something appears to be popular or desired, it may encourage them to introduce measures that can help make it possible or easier. Changing self-perceptions may influence polling answers or voting preferences. And then of course there are always the direct effects of actions such as communicating directly with policy makers or joining interest groups.

Personal actions can also change what is available to us commercially. Companies are even more responsive to what they think people want than politicians are. More and more people buying organic and fair trade has led to more being available. The public outcry about working conditions in overseas factories has led to changes in other countries.

And of course, those working in areas where they can expressly influence others can help even more. Policy makers can make policies that really encourage shifts of behaviour, companies can offer more sustainable choices, schools can teach about sustainability and show their own sustainable behaviour. And the more of these things that happen at once, through the actions of all of us, the more sustainable we will become, until the shift finally happens.