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Shades of Gray and Going Green: Beating the All-or-Nothing Mindset
By Margaret H. C. Giblin   View more articles by this author
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December 23

Some self-improvement goals seem to lend themselves to black-or-white, all-or-nothing thinking.  For example, if you’re interested in getting in shape, maybe you feel you ought to be ready to run a marathon within the next year.  Similarly, if you’re interested in going green, sometimes it can feel like the only way you can really make a difference is to stop consuming any natural resources and producing waste—essentially, to go “off the grid.”  But setting such ambitious goals can mean you end up feeling discouraged and not doing anything at all.  As the old saying goes, the perfect is the enemy of the good.  

If going green is one of your goals, try to approach it as you would your other goals—one step at a time.  Small steps (in what I’ll call the “gray area” between the extremes of, on the one hand, going off the grid, and on the other, feeling too discouraged to do much of anything) really do count.  Does it matter if you recycle the water bottle you bought this morning on your way to work?  Yes, it does!  And if you’re already a diligent recycler, think about next steps—for example, get a water filter to use at home and bring your own reusable bottle of filtered water to work.  Better yet, drink from the water fountain—studies suggest that tap water is as safe as, if not safer than, bottled water.  

Humanity’s impact on the environment is often referred to as our “eco-footprint.”  An eco-footprint measures how much biologically productive land and water we need to provide the resources we extract and absorb the pollution we create.  Humanity’s cumulative eco-footprint is the sum of each of our individual eco-footprints, so by definition, if you improve your own eco-footprint, you improve the overall picture.  

If that’s too theoretical to provide much motivation, try going to Conservation International’s website, where you can take an online quiz designed to help you measure your individual eco-footprint.  It can be eye-opening to see your current “green score,” and just as importantly, the quiz is designed to provide many helpful hints for day-to-day greener living along the way.  Give it a try, and see if you can identify at least three actions that you’re not currently taking but that you think you could.  Chances are, there will be at least that many that you could easily incorporate into your routine.  

Once you identify your action items, identify a time period over which you’re going to try to stickK to them—say, the next two weeks—and set your goal.  At the end of the two weeks, check and see—did you?  If so, great!  Take the quiz again and see how your eco-footprint improved, and then repeat the process—along the way, write down a few more actions you think you could take over the next couple of weeks.  You’ll get quantifiable feedback that little things count.  That feedback can help motivate you to take next steps.  Keep up this routine of making small, incremental changes a few at a time, and before you know it, you’ll have made a significant reduction in your eco-footprint and be well on your way to a more sustainable lifestyle!

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