Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Details Matter
distributed 7/10/15 - ©2015

Change is hard. Whether we're trying to make changes in our personal behaviors, or we're working for broader social transformation, getting those new ideas and actions to take hold is difficult.

I'm reminded by several recent conversations and articles that being specific is almost essential in altering how we live and act. Big global perspectives are important, but focusing on details is required to really make things happen.

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I've often referred to the important book, Fostering Sustainable Behavior: An Introduction to Community Based Social Marketing. (The full text of the book is on-line.) I return to this little volume frequently, because it is such a persuasive challenge to my bias toward beliefs and worldviews as motivators for change.

Knowledge and beliefs, say the authors, are almost worthless in changing day-to-day behavior. What really works are very detailed, very immediate campaigns with very specific goals and reminders. They write:

Slogans, such as "Think Globally, Act Locally," are ... designed to promote sustainable behaviors. Despite a prevalent belief that prompts such as this are effective in promoting sustainable behavior, non-explicit prompts ordinarily have little or no impact. Prompts that target specific behaviors can, however, have a substantial impact.

In a water efficiency project in Perth, Australia the application of prompts to various household devices, such as taps, reduced water use by 23%. Simply providing households with an informational pamphlet encouraging reductions in water use had no impact, however. This study underscored the importance of presenting a prompt in close proximity to the behavior to be encouraged.

The same thing seems to be true emotionally and spiritually. Generalities don't touch us deeply, but vivid specifics can be powerful. An article from the Washington Post offered advice on how to boost happiness with a few quick and simple daily habits. First on the list: "Spend two minutes a day scanning the world for three new things you're grateful for." Shawn Anchor, the "happiness researcher" documented the need to be specific.

I was working with a large financial company, and we got them to think of three things they were grateful for for 21 days, and it didn't work. They were always grateful for the same three things: their health, their work and their family. So they weren't specific. And they weren't scanning the world for new things.

So this only works if you're scanning for new things and you're very specific. So if you say, "I'm grateful for my son," it doesn't work. But if you say, "I'm grateful for my son because he hugged me today, which means I'm loved regardless," that specificity gets the brain stuck in a new pattern of optimism. It works with 4-year-old children and 84-year-old grumpy old men.

It occurs to me, pastors, that this advice can help us guide our congregations into more compelling prayer. Generic phrasing (we pray for the poor and the homeless, and for those who suffer) doesn't touch our hearts and souls. Getting more detailed gets the congregation more engaged (we pray for the homeless, and especially remember the street people of Denver who were displaced and who lost their possessions in the flooding last week).

The stories and the examples that we use to encourage behavior change become more effective when they get more specific. It is an environmentally good thing when members of our community shift from one-person-per-car kinds of transportation. There are all sorts of facts about how car pooling and mass transit reduce pollution and relieve congestion -- and most people still drive around alone.

I'm delighted to be able to use the positive example of my dear wife, Allyson, who delights in being able to use Denver's light rail system for her daily commute to the Denver Inner City Parish. I can use her story to illustrate the convenience and comfort of avoiding rush-hour traffic, her freedom from parking hassles, her safety as a woman traveling alone, the joy of encountering friends on the train, and the added benefits of a monthly pass that make mass transit the easy and affordable way to get around town. Telling Allyson's story to a potential train-rider is more real and more vivid -- more effective -- than a list of statistics.

And along those lines -- have you ever noticed how detailed and specific the parables of Jesus are? They are brilliant stories, conveying powerful truth, because they always use a single vivid image, never a generality. "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers ..." (Luke 10:30)

But what if we're trying to motivate broad social change, not narrowly-defined behaviors like water conservation or riding the bus? How can we be specific about vast global problems?

My friend, Erik Assadourian, a senior fellow of the Worldwatch Institute, has come up with a delightful way to do that. Erik's vocation deals with the big project of transforming cultures from consumerism to sustainability. Some of the issues that he addresses have to do with climate change, localizing agriculture, building close-knit communities, re-shaping options for healthy eating and exercise, and reducing wasteful urban sprawl. He points out, for example, that turf-grass lawns are the 5th largest crop in the US by acreage -- mile after mile of bluegrass that serves no purpose, consumes lots of water, and uses many chemicals.

Erik pondered how to tell an engaging, vivid and detailed story that would help people understand the need for change, and be enticed by new options for community life. Last fall, he started planning a reality TV show (really!) that will embody the message. No talking heads and colorful graphs. The show Yardfarmers will follow six young Americans as they live with their parents and attempt to make a livelihood out of growing food in their parents' yards, their neighbors' yards, random street flower boxes, churchyards, school yards, vacant lots, cemeteries, or whatever spaces you can find that can be converted from useless ornamental lawn into a new source of healthy, local and sustainable food.

The show will see if this social vision can work -- and broadcast the experiment to a national audience. "Do these young yardfarmers grow sustainable food, new local economic opportunities for their communities, and a heightened level of family togetherness? Or do they do battle at every turn, fighting with their frustrated folks, irritated community members, and an unforgiving Mother Nature? Does this new path make economic sense or just make enemies?" Through these six young adults, a vivid and personal face will be provided to exemplify complex issues and exciting opportunities.

Do you know somebody who might like to participate in competitive urban agriculture on TV? Applications for the Yardfarmer contestants are being accepted through August 1 -- spread the word!

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Details matter. We're far more likely to act, to be emotionally and spiritually moved, and to grasp complex social issues when our point of contact is specific and immediate.

General appeals to "be good stewards of creation" don't change the way that we live, but "shift your thermostat setting by 3 degrees" will get results. A factual report about urban food deserts may be interesting, but a season of Yardfarmers taking on bad soil, unpredictable weather and uncertain parents will help us visualize the reality of sustainable communities.

Look at the issues and the causes where you want to make a difference -- personally or socially. Where can you be more detailed and specific in describing change?


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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Eco-Justice Ministries ended all programming on July 31, 2020. This site is an archive of writings and resources.
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