Habits and Habitats

First published in the Monterey Eco Action Network (MEAN Team) February 2020 newsletter

“Harvey, I’d like to talk about your smoking habit,” said the doctor to my 59 year old father.

“What are you saying,” gruffed the dusty nickel miner who has been smoking since he was 11 years old, “Should I quit?”

A taken-aback doc, who knows full-well the science of addiction, the psychology of habits, and the difficulty of change, says, “Well… I just want to discuss the two packs a day.”

“OK then, I quit!” blurts my dad, who then pulls out both packs of Export A’s from his front pocket and kerthunks them into the garbage.

The wide-eyed doctor, knowing how unlikely it is that Hard Rock Harvey is going to quit his 48-year-old smoking habit, shrugs, looks down at his notepad and says, “Ok Mr. Moen, we’ll see you next week…. Have you heard of the patch?”

“I don’t need an ‘efen patch doc, I already quit!”

Habits. We all have them. Our habits serve many purposes. If we didn’t habituate we would have to relearn how to brush our teeth and drive to work each morning! In fact, our brain is designed to make habits by giving you a good ol’ dose of dopamine, which says, “I like it!” Dopamine. When you learn to score a basket, dopamine says, “Slam dunk!” When you crack a joke with your chums, and they laugh, dopamine pats you on the back, and tells you to try that again. When you put worry on hold with a shot of whiskey, dopamine says, “Ahhh, that’s nice, keep it up.”  When you score a sale price, dopamine shouts, “You are so freakin’ awesome! Buy some more!” Good or bad habits, dopamine does not discriminate.

Habits, habits, everywhere habits! Our brain has evolved to chemically reward us when we do things that we used to need to do for survival. That is why human shopping behaviour can look more like a bunch of enraged squirrels fighting for their nuts than we’d like to admit. Have you ever come home from a store doped up on dopamine and said, “Honey, I bought the hell outta’ them!” Have you ever dreaded the deals you were missing on Black Friday because you actually showed up for work instead? Have you ever counted the items in your home that you don’t actually use or need? (Experiment: start with unused products in the bathroom cupboards.) Habits are strongly attached to our emotional limbic system, and hence, affect our pleasure, satisfaction, sense of security, and even our ego.

Look at our food habits. Our evolutionary biology toots our whistle when we consume those items that were previously sometimes hard to obtain and crucial for survival: fats, salts, and sugars. (Hint: that is actually why they taste so good!) When I rip open a bag of BBQ chips, dopamine says, “Oh yeah baby, the next famine is just around the corner, so eat ‘em all!” And then you find that your brain-train is now travelling down a hardwired neural track. Mostly for better, but sometimes you arrive at your destination, and you may ask yourself, “How did I get here?” Same as it ever was. The efficiency of the familiar habit often overpowers the inconvenient new pathway of switching tracks. And later, after the bag-o-chips, I will regretfully wine, “But I didn’t mean to waist them!” Yesh.

Unpack the biology and psychology of habits and we can better understand human habitat behaviour. I mean really, it is the only way to get why a grown, educated, caring, responsible, and thoughtful adult in this day-and-age could still be using and throwing out disposable coffee cups every single day? It’s a bad habit.

Now before anyone thinks that I think my poop is green, I’ll be totally honest: an eco saint I ain’t. A few nights ago I needed a couple of items from the grocery store. I told myself, “I worked hard, I deserve a break today™.” So I drove my car three blocks to the grocery store to buy five items: yogurt, cheese, cream, bacon, and onions. I got back into my car and felt the eyes of David Suzuki burning into my Nature of Things. What’s the big deal? To explain, only one of those grocery items were truly green (like actually, green onions). The other items were three cow exploits and part of a dead pig. I don’t need someone from Planet Vega wagging their carrot at this Earthling to be aware that our food habits, especially the consumption of animal milk and flesh, contribute 25% of all the oil burning, carbon belching, and climate chaos. I know that many of my food habits are literally eating Earth up. To make matters worse, I drove my car three blocks to the feeding frenzy. Being that transportation habits are another 25% of the car(non)bon, I was clearly in the brown zone instead of the green zone.
 
Thus, my inspiration for this essay on habits, why we have them and how to change them, is for you my dear fellow Earthling…. But honestly, I’m writing this mostly for myself. Because I know that in the next decade, I have a lot of habits to unlearn and learn. I also know as a School Psychologist, which essentially is the changemaker biz, that sustainable habit breaking and making is much easier to do when not done alone.

If you are still here, and haven’t said, “Those environmentalists are ruining it for everyone!” (like my Grandma did to me 30 years ago), then perhaps you as well have come to the conclusion that almost everything that is leading to bad things in the world is brought to you by the letter ‘C’: convenience, consumption, carbon, combustion, capitalism, cataracts, and cooties. If this list makes you a little hot under the collar, it is not just because Australia is cooking right now like a “shrimp on the barbie” (and northern Canada is likely up next for the Great Outdoor Cookout). It may be because capitalism and convenience prey upon and exploit our evolutionary biology and psychology. It may also be because changing habits is hard and can be super uncomfortable.

Unless.

Unless we learn how to change!

Believe it or not, the first Earth Day was in nineteen-farout-seventy man. This year will be the 50th anniversary! So if the destination of planet annihilation and human extinction has been on our road map for so long, then why the heck have we been driving straight towards it with peddle to the medal [sic] rather than petal to the mettle [not sic]?

In the changemaker biz we can understand this dynamic using the Stages of Change model. The first stage is called pre-contemplation (or PC for short). PC is fueled by our cognitive defense mechanisms: the ways the brain distances itself from unpleasant thoughts, feelings, or behaviours. These defenses are so effective, we may not even be aware of them: such as floating in denial, compartmentalization, repression, rationalization, and almighty trumpism. It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine. One strategy for changemakers to help a person move out of PC is to let them experience the consequences of their actions. However, the pickle we are in is that environmental consequences are on such a large scale, that it is hard to connect my car-drive or wasted-cup, to October’s freezing rain storm and January’s shorts-weather. Sometimes in this stage some basic information can be helpful. To those who shrug and say that little things, such as throwing their orange peels in the trash, do not have much of an effect on the world, I say, try pulling out a nostril hair. And to those who still think that a bunch of little actions don’t add up to much, they should watch this video on a group of knuckle crackers. Another strategy to quell the cognitive defense habit is to recognize that the climate crisis is not totally our fault. However, the other side of that coin is that we are still completely responsible to deal with it. To move out of PC mode you have to have an awakening. Realize. Real eyes. Real I’s. Reil-ize.

The next stage of change is contemplation. Houston, I have a problem. It can be a scary and vulnerable place to hang out. The changemakers will help you identify your different parts. Tell me more about that part of you that believes if the whole planet does not collectively make dramatic change as soon as possible that we are pooched? To remain too long in contemplation without support, you might have a visitor from eco-anxiety, or her angry twin, climate-rage. Another strategy to move through contemplation is to increase paying attention. When we are on autopilot, our habits run the show. If you need help practicing paying attention, otherwise known as mindfulness, experiment with these behaviours: next time when you are eating, focus on chewing a predetermined number of bites and don’t pick up your next forkful until you have already swallowed. Or you could just simply pay attention to your breath. As nobody has to remind themselves to breathe, it is one of the most habituated behaviours we have. The payout of intentional attention is you engage your prefrontal cortex (which is also where sits the impulse-controller, the predictor of consequences from actions, and the goal-orientator). The third experiment could be to drive consciously. A few years ago I stopped playing music while driving from school to school. Instead I breathe. Often I lose my breath focus and get distracted by past and future orientated thoughts and worries. If this happens to you, try reporting in your mind or out loud what you are experiencing in that moment: “Right now I am looking at the car in front of me. I am seeing red brake lights. Right now I am glancing at a street sign. I wonder why it is crooked. Right now I am pushing my foot on the brake…. Now I am wondering if I paid my Autopac insurance.” I could be wrong, but I don’t recall ever reading of this form of mindfulness I use. So for now let’s just call it the Moen Observational Reporting Of Nuances© method (patent pending).

A person can be stuck in the first two stages of change for days, months, years, or even a lifetime. Fortunately, the third stage can happen in a nano-second. It is the action stage. Actions, like recycling or reusing our stuff to their natural end, are fabulous habits to have. My 14-year-old daughter, after her Climate Strike ‘die-in’, has become a second-hand store shopping ninja. I now compost religiously, often carrying mogey banana peels home in my lunch bag. And I’ve detoxed my house off of most single use plastics. Recycling or reusing feels good, inspires us, and helps the climate change problem, just to guess a number, by maybe 5% to 10%. The last of the 3Rs, “reduce”, is the first in the mantra on purpose. Reducing will be the other 90% of change required. Fortunately, it will be easy, because we only actually have to reduce one thing, and that is consumption!

OK, ok, being that the human species is likely at its peak and beyond-Pharaoh level of consumption, and being that people today consume, what, maybe five times more than our great-grandparents did, it is fair to think that reducing our consumption habits will take some work. Fortunately, in addition to the obvious (oil and plastic), you can reduce anything and everywhere to make a difference. With the goal of inspiring my fellow Earthlings, I will use myself as a demonstration of different actions you can take, by breaking three of my bad habits. The added bonus for me is that as soon as I share my intentions with others here, I increase the likelihood of me actually doing and maintaining my actions (of which is the fourth stage of change).

Speaking of not paying attention, the first habit I want to break is that I often turn on the tap before I am done brushing my teeth. Yes, you don’t know you are not paying attention because you are not paying attention. There are four conditions that may help me change this behaviour.

1) If I remember to finish brushing my teeth before water tapping and I feel relief for not hearing Mother Gaia call me a “sink sinner,” and my finish-brushing behaviour goes up, then I was motivated by negative reinforcement. Unfortunately, Gaia does not scold her wayward children often enough.

2) If I put a shiny gold star on my calendar every time I pull my toothbrush out of my squeaky-clean mouth before I turn on the water tap, and the frequency of toothbrush-outs go up, my habit grew from positive reinforcement. In the past, this strategy helped build my running habit, but exercise has other immediate rewards (And yes, I actually did give myself stickers. Pro-tip: arrange for a goal, i.e., 30 stickers = a new pair of running gitch).

3) If every time I turn on the tap before finishing brushing my kids take .35 cents from my “change purse” (the cost of the water), and my water waste reduces, I am moved by negative punishment.

4) Unfortunately, despite the fact that I actually do want to change my behaviour, all these strategies have not had enough oomph to get me there. Instead, I will try positive punishment: Every time I turn on the tap too early, I do solemnly declare, I will pull out one nostril hair. The behaviourism language is sometimes counter intuitive. It is called “positive” because a stimulus is added. It can only be called a punishment if it decreases my premature faucetation. If it does not decrease this behaviour, at least I have a clean nose to breathe into my murky conscience. (Update: since I wrote this paragraph a week ago, only two hairs have been tweaked. Way to go Keith, gold star, ding, atta’boy!)

My second habit I want to break is that every morning I wake up and some person I’ve never met has put a 1½ to 3 inch tree branch into my mailbox. I go outside in the dark and cold, bring in the little log, and put it on my breakfast table. Even stranger, a whole throng of people worked most the night and previous day slicing the log up into paper thin slices, on which they drew drawings, pasted pictures, and jibber-jabbered on every bad thing they could think of, with a few nice ideas thrown in for good measure. Additionally, depending on the day, between 20-70% of the whole thing is filled with manipulative messages that goad me on to consume something. And perhaps the strangest thing of all is that I signed up for it and paid them to do this to me!

All kidding aside, I have enjoyed and valued reading my decade of morning newspapers while eating my granola. However, I hate that I have killed 20 trees in doing so. I need to break this habit! The difference between a goal and dream is a plan. A “smart” plan (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timeline) will increase the likelihood of success. Here is my plan for change. I will contact the newspaper right now as I type, and ask them if I could receive my paper with no flyers or magazines, which on some days is half of the log (this is the harm reduction approach). And the answer is….  hold on I’m on hold……. The answer is, “No.” Ok, next plan. With my subscription I already have access to the digital format. On Sunday night I’m going to set up my tablet on the breakfast table. What do I need to help make this easier? Hmmm, I know, the tablet has to be charged and the newspaper link needs to be bookmarked. I also need to be able to print out a few articles a week to support my leaving-crap-around-the-house habit. Although I will still receive the paper paper, I’ll start accessing the e-paper on Monday morning. If I feel after one week I can manage reading it the e-way, I will cancel my paper paper subscription, save ten bucks a month, reduce the carbon production probably to a tenth, and just like that, I stop killing trees! In case anyone forgets that no choice is benign, even electronically I’m consuming lots of energy, as just one Google search alone uses enough energy to boil a cup of water. Want to hear another true and humbling fact? I asked the paper rep on the phone if I could still access the flyers digitally. Yes, habits. Yesh.

Finally, my eating habits have been munch on my mind lately. It seems like all the foods I love to chew on start with the letter ‘C’: chocolate, chips, cheese, chorizo (and all other sausages). Putting aside the significantly larger carbon tireprint of eating high up in the food chain, for five years now I have been wrestling with the ethics of consuming pork. It started at the Winnipeg Humane Society, at which I saw the size of an actual cage industrially farmed mother pigs are constrained in. The cage is no bigger than their body. Then, when I learned that my friend Bill had stopped eating pork, I asked him why he quit. He said, “Because they figured out that pigs are at least as intelligent as a 3 to 4 year old child.” To that, I quipped, “But kids don’t likely taste as good.” Nice one, School Psychologist. I regret saying that to this day.

So in the spirit of my Oppositionally Defiant Dad, I’m gonna pull a Harvey, and shout, “I quit!”

Splaatch. That is the sound of my last piece of bacon hitting the griddle.

“What are you saying? You want to chop your pork?”

“Yeah, roast it, I quit!”
 
“But you could buy ethically-raised sausages instead… What about ham reduction?”

“What the fork for? I already quit.”

There you have it. Habits in our habitats — from the mind, to the heart, to the gut, to the body, to the Earth. But before you decide to change any habits too, keep in mind, it is possible that 99% of the world’s scientists may be wrong about climate chaos. Greta may just be another teenager trying to skip school. And I might be an Ecovangelist wingnut who thrives on doom, conspiracy theories, and straw-man fallacies. But if climate change is a hoax, and the greatest consequences that occur due to dramatic reduction of our consumption habits are that we are all healthier and have more money in the bank, well then, you might actually have a future to spend it in.

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