Eight years. I’ve lived in the States as a fully certified adult for eight years. I did grow up America, but then spent my formative, early young adult years (post college to age 35) in Europe, so think of my life in terms of how long I’ve been “back in the States.” It was a strange thing returning after so long away. I left as a recently graduated college kid and returned, married, with 2 kids and a mortgage. So although culturally, it seemed like coming home, things felt incredibly foreign in some unexpected areas. I didn’t really know the ins and outs of “grown up” life – how to establish credit, get a mortgage, run an old, New England, wooden, house (my god, the houses here are made of ant food, and need SO much maintenance).
But the surprises went far beyond the practicalities of how to navigate the logistics of adult life. What I found was that culturally, although on the surface it felt like coming home — I have the right accent and even say wicked and talk about the Red Sox – in so many ways, I am no longer comfortable with the status quo in American social norms. So imagine my horror when the other day, I found that I ran 3 errands within 1/2 mile of each other, moved the car between each on, and didn’t even think about it….until I was sitting in the car after the third one, and it hit me. It’s not just that I’ve slipped down the slope, it’s that I didn’t even feel the wind in my hair on the way.
Over the last several years, I have been disheartened by the lack of awareness of Americans of their impact on our planet. And even now, eight years later, there’s much more awareness, but slim evidence of willingness or even desire to do anything about it. My tendency to see the best in people and empathize makes me think that as people become more aware, behaviors will change. But watching my own behavior and the tendency to slide to the “norm” of what’s around me, makes me pretty despondent about our hope for change.
When we arrived back in the States, it would never have occurred to me not to walk or ride my bike on any journey of up to about 5 miles unless it was pouring rain (forget about drizzle). Now those journeys are done regularly in the car, or there’s definitely discussion about the logistics of not doing them in the car. Our heating would never have been above 68 – and yet our thermostats’ default was 72. I had few clothes that I wore until they were dirty, washed and rotated, for many years. I now find myself feeling the need to buy more stuff, just because I can. The pressure I feel to have a lush, chemical, water sucking lawn is palpable – to not do so feels like a cheat on the neighbors and their property values. Even though I feel pretty passionate about more sustainable landscaping, including growing my own food, given that we have a fair amount of open land, I feel the sting of bucking that status quo. I find it easier to act where the results are private and I can still give the semblance of “fitting in.”
Intellectually, I know what’s going on here. It’s pretty well documented that people tend to drift to the norms around them. On the whole, this is a good thing; it’s what makes societies function effectively. Knowing when to shake hands, what kind of tip is expected at restaurants, how children are to behave in public, etc all be useful. But what happens when many of the social norms are found by a large minority within a society and by the world beyond, to be fundamentally flawed or harmful? What happens when on an abstract level, sensible minds agree that the norms we have need to change, but on a practical level, people just want to carry on as they always have? How do we make that happen? That’s where we are with changing behavior in a more environmentally friendly direction.