Changing habits through education

“You cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth.” — Winston Churchill

There’s a new book titled “Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness,” which states: If an expert proposes practical changes to society’s habits, people will go along with those changes. But if people have to make those changes on their own, most of the time, they won’t bother. The authors, Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein, refer to behavioral economics/choice architecture as just such a winning strategy. Taking their lead, ecology activists can plant seeds of change by offering crucial information, engaging in persuasive dialogue, and petition lawmakers to pass new ordinances for the common good. One such nudge is to convince people to eliminate the use of fossil fuel plastic shopping bags. Single use plastic bags can easily be replaced with reusable cloth bags.

Discussions are underway with local municipalities, through proclamations, to pass local plastic bag ordinances. Our educational component is underway with the showing of films like “Bag It — Is Your Life Too Plastic?” — aired last month at Foxdale Village and Schlow Centre Region Library. Penn State’s Plastic Entanglements: Ecology, Aesthetics, Materials Symposium is scheduled to begin in January, with an exhibition opening at the Palmer Art Museum Feb. 13-June 17, 2018. This spring we begin a pilot project through Penn State’s sustainability programs to start a new industry with local farmers to grow materials and manufacture reusable cloth grocery bags to replace single use bags. This program is an expansion of my School of Visual Arts and College of Art & Architecture initiative to replace plastic water bottles (used for conferences, faculty meetings and receptions) with ceramic cups made by SoVA Ceramics students.

This is the year we will likely pass local and regional ordinances for a small fee at checkout for single use bags, already covered by EBT/low income cards in many other states. Opposition abounds because of the misconception that such solutions are too complex to implement — even though national and international ecology leaders all agree that a ban of toxic materials and fossil fuels in our communities is our primary path forward. Hundreds of cities across the U.S. and the globe have fees, or have totally banned plastic bag usage. Because of cross contamination the recycling process as it now exists doesn’t work, regardless of Refuse and Recycling’s public statements. Too many different plastics are incompatible, and therefore cannot be recycled. Only Nos. 1 and 2 are actually recycled, and they are mostly found in “organic” food packaging. Well over 90 percent of plastics are burned, causing poisonous fumes, or dumped into overcrowded landfills, causing toxic methane build up.

Living our ethics means practicing conscientious acts of protesting injustice in the public sphere, but it also means recognizing our own complicity as consumers and hold ourselves, legislators, and corporations accountable. The “inconvenient truth” is the true cost of consumer convenience-culture is untenable given our heightening environmental crisis, and comes at too high a cost to our bodies’ health and the health of our planet.

All over planet Earth humans have become walking toxic waste disposals with 200 industrial chemicals recorded in our blood and respiratory systems: neurotoxin PCBs/lead/mercury/pesticides/insecticide-chlorpyrifos/flame retardants, even jet fuel (according to the President’s Cancer Panel and International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics.) Male sperm counts globally have declined 50-60 percent, causing an epidemic of sterility. Scientific evidence of environmental poisons is ignored or hidden by chemical industry lobbyists and some colluding legislators. Pennsylvania, Illinois and New York have much higher rates of lead poisoning in children than the infamous history of Flint, Michigan —causing shrunken brains, diminished IQs, violent behavior, according to the Lancet Neurology and Dr. David L. Shern, director of Mental Health America. Shern insists we have the moral obligation to prevent these pathologies and calls for a revolution in public health to protect the lives of our children and grandchildren.

Our community can make many other changes. Farmers can improve soil fertility and increase soil carbon content through regenerative agriculture and cover crops, which would quickly capture carbon and nitrogen from the atmosphere, thus eliminating the “need” for chemical pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, tilling. We can learn from California’s statewide practices including the Marin County Carbon Project as a model for local soil sequestration.

2018 can be the year of prevention of environmentally caused diseases by reducing poisons like formaldehyde, lead, mercury, glyphosate in Roundup, preservatives and pesticides that destroy food pollination by killing bee, butterfly, ladybug and bat populations. Big pharma, like big oil and agribusiness, profit from our diseases. It is up to us to hold our legislators responsible to the common good, not the corporate good. Changing our individual and collective habits can halt the environmental devastation we face.

Micaela Amateau Amato lives in Boalsburg and is a Penn State professor emerita.