Do you feel like you’re fighting a losing battle to help care for our planet? Leah Smolarek is a psychology student and runner-up of our Study Grant. Here, she explains the five best ways she’s found to help the planet and not be a jerk about it.
I walk into my favourite café and shyly place my reusable glass container on the counter. I order a vegan burger and juice, and the cashier smiles at me; she knows that I don’t want disposable napkins, cutlery, or straws (I’m a regular). I trek back across the city to eat my lunch in a park, pulling out my own cutlery and reusable drink bottle. Is this what saving the world feels like?
A large four-wheel drive stops in front of me with a single occupant eating from a styrofoam container. My daydreams of an eco-utopia are quickly quashed and I become infuriated – doesn’t this guy know that the planet is in danger? How dare he! Here all the rest of us are trying to make our footprint a little smaller and people like him don’t even notice. But then I look around. Am I the only one doing this? Surely not. From a simple Internet search I can easily find so many others proudly adopting a greener lifestyle too.
I see a mother struggling with a crying child across the road and think about how avoiding plastic, or donating to charity, or buying organic food and clothes might seem out of reach for her. I think about my own family and friends who are flat-out trying to finish their degrees, or feed their families, and how annoyed they get if I accidently side-eye them a little too much for their plastic water bottle.
My apologies… I tend to climb on a very high horse sometimes. I know that people don’t inherently want to hurt the planet and the people and animals that inhabit it, but I feel like I’m hitting my head against a wall trying to create some sort of positive change, and all I do is alienate people. It turns out that people don’t want to hear about choking turtles, or starving children, or homeless veterans, or the cows that are in their burger – ignorance really is bliss.
The old phrase, “one person can’t make a difference” does have an ounce of credit. So, how can I exponentially increase my own positive impact on the planet? Somehow, I know I must convince others to create positive change (without them hating me). I know I need to help people change their daily habits, and go on to become so enthusiastic that they also help others.
I’ve been labelled a lot of things: hippie, social justice warrior, the crazy-vegan lady. But the worst feeling was being called ‘preachy’ – and by a good friend of all people. Although plenty of people have commended me on not being as pushy as the stereotypical activist, it hurt to think that this person that I cared about felt like I looked down on them. Is saving the planet worth ruining friendships over? Is there a way to do both? Sometimes it feels like just making my own ethical choices makes other people uncomfortable.
I wish I had a magical answer to share with you all that would reveal the secrets to making your friends and family as eco-minded as you. But as someone who studies social psychology, I can tell you that science hasn’t made it that far yet. So, here is my best advice on how to be a good person without being a jerk.
5 steps to saving the planet without scaring away your loved ones
- Be a good role model: You definitely have to practice what you ‘preach’ (without being ‘preachy’)! But don’t stress about being perfect – the ultimate aim is to make more conscious, positive choices.
- Don’t be a martyr. Or a jerk. Activism comes in many shapes and forms. Sometimes the shock factor works, but when it comes to your own friends and family, drop the ‘mightier than thou’ attitude and focus on inclusivity.
- Don’t let people wind you up or discourage you. You probably will get dismissive comments or challenging confrontations at some points in your journey, but how you react to people can be a huge factor in their willingness to hear you out. Sometimes the people who are the most resistant to change can be the ones to have the biggest change of heart if you’re patient.
- Seek support from like-minded people. Join Facebook groups or community meetups, and find people who understand your passion for a kinder world. Thinking about the negative things going on in the world can be really overwhelming, especially if your loved ones don’t see things the same way. A happier you is going to be more likely to win hearts and habit wars.
- Enjoy yourself! When people see how happy and healthy you are with your sustainable lifestyle, they’ll be dying to try it. It’s a contagion of positivity!
Be patient with these tips. You won’t see the change overnight, but since becoming less full-on in my approach, I’ve seen wonderful things happen in people around me. There was my boyfriend carrying in a load of groceries (begrudgingly) balanced in his arms to avoid a plastic bag. There was that acquaintance who asked me for vegan recipes for her new lifestyle. And, the eco- action that I have the most love for; my mum cleaning out cosmetics containers for the TerraCycle program.
Kindness is everywhere you look. People want to do good, but often don’t know how. If you want the world to be a more compassionate place, start with the way you approach others.
Now, go forth, and save the planet!
On a typical day food shopping for Leah, she says: “At Suntralis Bulk Food Store in Adelaide, I bought some red lentils for Dahl, soy beans to try making soy milk, some oats for breakfast (and sometimes oat milk), and some nutritional yeast for vegan cheese sauce! I’m using Onya reusable produce bags, some old jars, and a second-hand container stolen from my mum. I also sometimes use some bags I made from pillowcases and an old plastic shower loofa turned into a fruit bag. Remembering to take them is the hard part! Sometimes at the fruit shop I end up juggling half a dozen apples in my arms rather than putting them in a plastic bag (my produce guy is very patient).”
On clothes shopping, Leah says: “I love the Red Cross Op Shop at St Marys in Adelaide. The staff are lovely! I buy most of my clothes second-hand and Red Cross is a cause I’m more than happy to support (they’re also a charity I donate to through salary deductions at work). If I’m not buying second-hand, I buy the highest quality reasonable so I won’t have to replace it, and try to buy classic rather than trendy.”
Leah is a 20-year-old psychology student, and runner-up of our Study Grant last year. Read more of her musings on her blog where she writes about volunteering in Africa, studying abroad in Spain, being a vegan in Valencia, and why she doesn’t visit aquariums anymore.