Stories: The fibers that show our sustainability future is happening now

Storytelling is an important part of my work as a sustainability professional.  Stories inspire, move, connect, and engage.  And I think the reason why is that for all the talk about what we should or need to do for the future, stories illustrate that we’re already able to and are doing the right things for our future.

Telling the energy stories of Montgomery County

UntitledLast November, as part of an effort to illustrate all the good energy work I saw happening in Montgomery County, we started a storytelling effort.  Inspired by CERT’s Energy Stories, I made a goal of publishing a new energy case study each month.

To add a little pressure, I set up the Montgomery County Energy News, a monthly e-newsletter that provides important updates about the County’s energy policies and programs, and also includes the monthly energy case study.

With the help of a writer, we’ve covered a restaurant, a homeowner’s lighting and another’s solar project, a mall’s lighting project, and even work of our County.

Kitchen-lighting-1024x682

Laytonsville home updates their lighting

fedrIn addition to the case studies, we’ve launched a series called “BENCHMARKED” which features an interview of a building owner/manager who’s benchmarked their building in ENERGY STAR Portfolio Manager – which certain buildings are mandated to do starting next year.

Here we feature some companies that are leading in energy performance, our public schools and college, and (soon) our Early Bird Benchmarkers!

Storytelling is a way for us to recognize residents and businesses doing the right thing and demonstrating what our Department of Environmental Protection is trying to promote.

Storytelling also benefits these members of the Montgomery County community – especially businesses that are interested in garnering recognition for their hard work.  It’s one way in which we can and like to partner with our community organizations, friends, and businesses!

“The shortest distance between two people is a story.”
– Unknown

Using Storytelling to make an issue Our-Size

In the sustainability field, so many of us are still relying on the rational argument to make our case: how many pounds of carbon we can reduce from changing our lights, how many leaves to rake to reduce phosphorus, how many miles we should bike instead of drive to improve air quality.  But climate change, no matter what the numbers, is possibly too big for our brains to actually capture and comprehend (Gilbert).

So how do we take the big problem and make it real at our level?  I would argue that storytelling does that.  Storytelling can simultaneously convey a message, connect others to another, and also establish norms that can compel action.

SolarJoy

Poolesville home goes solar with electric vehicles

Sole & Wilson (2002) identify the role of storytelling as follows:

  • Share norms and values: Stories act as a medium for passing on values and creating vision.
  • Develop trust and commitment: Personal stories can communicate one’s own ability and commitment, as well as conveying openness by sharing something personal. Organizational stories influence the perceived trustworthiness of the firm and its management (either positively or negatively).
  • Share tacit knowledge: Enables the users to articulate tacit knowledge and communicate with feeling, which helps them convey more than they realize that they know (Weaver 2005 in Bali et al 2009).
  • Facilitate unlearning: Unlearning often requires more than rational arguments. It needs an intuitive and emotional anchor, which stories can provide.
  • Generate emotional connection: We connect with stories emotionally and a story that has had an impact on us will be easily recalled long into the future.

From: http://www.knowledge-management-tools.net/storytelling.html#ixzz3dX5hziIO

We’ll continue to collect our stories, slowly but surely building our library of stories to showcase all the different ways in which Montgomery County is living up to its name as a progressive, green, and sustainable County!

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The power of a sticker…

As the research around behavior change has shown, we humans often do the things we do, not for the benefits explicitly inherent in the activity itself, but for some other outside and still rational reasons.

We turn off the lights when we leave the room because it’s the norm or habit… “that’s what we do around home” – not because we calculate the energy savings as we contemplate leaving the room.  We run in races to set and meet a goal, be with friends, and maybe get a cool t-shirt (Maggie, I’m thinking of you!), not just because that’s the only opportunity to time ourselves and run a measured course.  And, as an anecdote from many years ago (still searching for documentation) – we recycle our old refrigerators, not for a $50 rebate but in exchange for a $10 gift card to the local ice cream shop.

Kids enjoying ice cream truck

Photo courtesy of kazzpoint0 via Flickr

Norms, habits, perceptions, goals, aspirations, and social pressure all contribute to us doing certain behaviors.  A new case in point from my own life:

For the past 7 days, I’ve done more yoga than I typically do in a single month.  You see…there’s a Spring Yoga Challenge going on at my studio (25 practices in 30 days), and I decided to take the challenge and devote myself to my yoga practice for the next month.

The thing is, I have to be honest.  When I think hard about it:

I’m doing it for the stickers.

There’s this sticker board, you see…  And maybe it’s like being a kid and flossing my teeth (I’m thinking of you, Mom…), but we get a sticker after every practice.  And the JOY, of peeling off the sticker from the paper, and putting it by your name is CRAZY REWARDING.

The positively colorful and compelling STICKER BOARD!

The positively colorful and compelling STICKER BOARD!

I didn’t even know until my 4th practice that there are RAFFLE PRIZES for those that complete the challenge.  Really…the stickers do it for me.

Maybe it’s the stickers, but behavior change research shows there’s probably more to this than a happy sticker board.  The Spring Challenge incorporates several “nudges” that research has shown help us change our behavior.

  • The sticker board  is a public and durable commitment – my name is listed along with several others, and our progress is marked next to our name.  It’s much harder to back down when you’ve made the commitment loud, clear, and visible.
  • There’s some social diffusion going on here.  Yoga instructor and my pal, Jonathan, gave me the necessary (even if silly) encouragement to sign up.  I’ve trusted him to lead me into new and strange poses and postures…so it makes sense I would trust him when he says I could/should try this yoga challenge.
  • Timing is not a motivator, but it didn’t stand in the way as a barrier.  Convenient, the Challenge started up right after my last running race, so I wouldn’t be disrupting any training schedule, and I usually turn to more yoga during a recovery period anyway.  (Just to note that timing can matter!)
  • Assisted handstand

    Individually strong… Collectively stronger!

    And, as I mentioned before in a previous post, IPY has a community that encourages certain norms…like doing the Challenge.  My other friends are doing it: Tariq, Monica, Rebecca, Gretchen, Michelle, Jessica…(just to name those I’ve seen most recently) …  And when you show up at Inner Power Yoga, you are always greeted with a smile, a name, some cozy fun chat, and a feeling that you really belong.

There’s community at IPY.  My name on that sticker board reminds me that I’m part of this community.  And in this community we (a bunch of us) are working towards practicing yoga 25 times in the next 30 days.  Pretty powerful stuff, huh?

Crow and extended crow pose

(Yea, this lasted about 3 seconds…)

I’ll keep you posted about my progress, but I have a feeling that even if I don’t complete the 25 practices, I still will have spent valuable time on the mat, deepened my practice, and gained all the benefits that come from a consistent yoga practice…  And maybe the stickers will end up in the recycling bin (however, remembered eternally by my camera phone), but the benefits will last far beyond this 30 days.

You see, it doesn’t matter if it’s stickers or almond butter, endorphins, feeling more confident about yourself, or just showing up because you want to see your friends…what matters is what we end up doing…the benefits will follow regardless.

Lesson: Don’t take for granted what will motivate and compel sustainable or other healthy (even if upside-down and extended) actions and behavior!

Note: Often folks learn about behavior change tools and strategies and they feel that their experience is therefore inauthentic or gamed.  I would argue that these types of structures and strategies are pervasive throughout our day, and we should be so lucky if they are part of and support healthy sustainable activity.  I am grateful for Ursula and the community she has created at IPY, and she created this fun game and challenge which just happens to nudge me (and probably several others) to deepen our yoga practices and dedicate some time to the mat.  There is nothing wrong with this, and I look forward to the fall challenge and many more after that!

Energy efficiency and behavior change struggle on…

For several years, I’ve been writing about, working in, or incorporating behavior change methods to encourage energy conserving behavior.

And I guess this post is to say: Don’t let up.  We haven’t gotten there yet…perhaps not by a long shot.

In our bag of goodies, we have new arsenal: thermostats that beg us to interact (such as Google’s Nest), smart meter interval data available at our finger tips (see Pepco’s My Account), home displays that happen on our phone (see the latest example in the news), and games among games to play with our family and community to encourage reducing energy.

A survey from KSVC, a marketing firm that appreciates the challenge of this task, has revealed that we’re not too far from where we were back in 2012.  Essentially they found:

“…higher utility bill is easier to cope with than the price of a solution.”

In other words, we haven’t made it harder to cope with a higher utility bill than implementing a solution (whether technological or behavioral).  “Energy efficiency” in the home is still a technology, not a state or category of behavior.

Still need time to turn this ship around... (by james_wheeler via flickr)

Still need time to turn this ship around… (by james_wheeler via flickr)

What energy efficiency means to us is:

  • 53% – Energy Efficiency means efficient products and/or technology.
  • 20% – Energy Efficiency means an expensive investment.
  • 16% – Energy Efficiency means conservation.
  • 10% – Energy Efficiency means not measurable savings.

Maybe it’s still about the words we use (as I noted from Dougherty’s work several years ago).  KSVC tried using the term “energy saving solution” and apparently we found that to mean something different:

  • 35% – Energy Savings Solutions means easy-to-implement, DIY tips.
  • 32% – Energy Savings Solutions means financial savings.
  • 23% – Energy Savings Solutions means conservation.
  • 8% – Energy Savings Solutions means immediate savings.

What does this mean for those trying to nudge greater energy savings out of our community?  We need to continue to find the most salient ways to approach the concept of conservation, find ways to ingrain behavior into habits, and continue to build the social norm by making the invisible visible and sharing stories about one another.  In other words, it’s back to the basics of community based social marketing.

Keep on, keeping on….

Read more about KSVC’s survey and their work at: http://www.ksvc.com/blog/2015/3/5/customer-perceptions-of-energy-efficiency-may-surprise-you

Saving Energy is Good for the Soul

Reposted from MyGreenMontgomery.org where you can learn about green living in Montgomery County and read stories of local resident doing more to use less and protect our community’s environment!

Hello! It’s your friendly County energy adviser, Michelle, here to help ring in the New Year with a blog post.

Let me start by saying: I promise I’m not going to challenge you to turn off lights or get an energy audit. I’m not even going to offer you tips on making your resolutions SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, results-focused, and time-bound). You can read about energy goals, SMART goals, and other behavior-changing tips elsewhere.

Instead, I offer this resolution: Do more healthful and meaningful activities this year.

Making 2015 meaningful and healthful

To prove I’m serious, here are some examples of what I mean:

  • Get a good night’s sleep as many nights a week as you can. Re-discover what 8 hours of sleep can do for you, even if it’s just on the weekend.

Sleeping kitten. Photo courtesy of Moyan Breen, via Flickr

  • Invite friends and family over for dinner, hang out, and socialize. Cook and watch a movie, play games, visit and catch-up over a cup of cocoa.
  • Go for a walk in your neighborhood and stop to smell the, err…native and stormwater-friendly species in yours and your neighbors’ yards. Maybe, even say “hello”!
  • Plant something, like a pot of flowers or a tree.

Child playing in a garden. Photo courtesy of Jessica Lucia, via Flickr

  • Volunteer at your favorite local charity, or better yet, help out a neighbor with a project that could use an extra pair of hands. Have you gotten to know your local Greens (Bethesda, Poolesville, Silver Spring, Wheaton)?

What do these things all have in common?

Well, first of all, they are good and healthy fun. These activities make us smile, and feel better about yourself, your family, your friends, and your community. These activities make us happy, grateful, and appreciative of what’s around us.

Secondly, they also have a low energy impact. A recent study featured in the Washington Post by Joseph Kantenbacher, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California-Berkeley, showed us “The surprising link between things that make us happy and things that save energy”.  Kantenbacher found:

“A number of the least energy intensive activities that I found — sleeping, socializing, hobbies, and so forth — are enriching personally.  So they make people happy to do them, but they also are relatively low consuming activities.”

Make this year one of good, healthy fun, and maybe you’ll find that your energy bill drops a bit – or maybe a bit more if you turn off the lights or get that audit – but regardless of how much energy you save this year, you’ll be a happier, healthier person.

A family cooking together. Photo courtesy of Nestle, via Flickr.

Original post by the friendly folks at Montgomery County DEP: https://montgomerycountymd.mygreenmontgomery.org/2015/01/have-fun-save-energy/

 

Success! Factors behind my new composting and health habits

Those that have witnessed one of my CBSM presentations (or read last week’s post) have heard my sustainable behavior change failure story (Failure stories are fun, right?  Read mine here.)

But this post isn’t about my failure…it’s about my recent SUCCESS!  

Four months ago, I started a new job.  This new job meant a longer commute (15-45 minutes longer each way), and longer hours (an extra hour 4 days a week to allow one day off every other week).  But it also meant I’d be surrounded by sustainably-minded colleagues again, and I was looking forward to the challenges and opportunities of the new position.  So, on one hand, I had greater limitations on my time and energy, but on the other hand, I could start with a clean slate and perhaps have the support of my new work environment.

What’s the result?  Two distinct changes that demonstrate the behaviors many of us strive for in our own lives, or to promote in others’.

  • IMG_2140

    The worm bin!

    I’ve been successfully maintaining a healthy and thriving vermiculture  compost for the last 4 months.  Barriers?  …See my failure story.

  • I’ve been exercising regularly and adopted other healthy habits for the last 4.5 months.  Barrier #1: I decided morning was the most fool-proof plan to integrate physical activity into my schedule.  But getting up at 6am is a whole 1.5 hours earlier than I typically was getting up…”Uff da”!  Barrier #2: I hated running…and really exercise in general.

If my story of failure demonstrated the challenge of behavior change, I hope my success story can begin to uncover the multiple and layered factors that make up a new behavior and habit.  (Hint: Note the theme of community and social support throughout these factors…)

Change #1: Composting with Worms!

  • Clean Slate (new job) Composting perhaps seemed like an appropriate way to celebrate the new job and commemorate a return to sustainability, plus summer was upon us in June – a good time to turn a new leaf
  • Cognitive Dissonance (aligning identities) I felt like I had abandoned my sustainable self back at CERTs where I felt the gentle and positive pressure to put forth a little bit more effort to be a bit more gentle on the earth.  Further, I was getting tired of telling my failure story over and over for the last several years.  In my new work place, the Dept of Environmental Protection, I felt it was time to invite my earth-friendly values to manifest.
  • Patio facing the woods (one plus to suburban life)

    Patio facing the woods (one plus to suburban life)

    Infrastructure (patio) We finally had a patio and we made plans to stay in this apartment for awhile.

  • Social Norm (descriptive) At my new job, I met a colleague whocomposts at home.  Iwas referred to her, she beingsomeone that “walks the talk” and Susanne gave me great composting advice and confirmed for me that this is something my new colleagues do and support.In July, my worms arrived and the rest is history.  I’m pretty sure I’ve doubled my worm population and am now looking for solutions to insulate them from the cold this winter!

IMG_1961    IMG_2137

Change #2: Exercising and other healthy stuff!
This one baffles me.  Why would I decide to add exercise to my routine when my commute time is doubling and I’m working longer days?  Plus, I had this aversion to sweating and running…

  • Social Diffusion (example of a colleague)  I thought of my friend and colleague who juggled a family, managed a rapidly growing nonprofit, and yet her morning run was (or seemed to be) one of the most consistent parts of her life.  I’ve looked to her as a mentor for many things, and her running routine wasn’t lost on me.
  • Clean Slate (new job and routine)  Despite the new time costs of the new job, at the beginning of the summer, I was excited, refreshed, and had the morning sun to my advantage.  I think I was also cognizant of the new responsibilities of the job and felt exercise would be an important part of me being able to handle it.  HBR talks about how exercise is an important part one’s mental and emotional (and of course, physical health)…and self-care is an important aspect of a leadership practice.
  • Post-run stretching spot

    Post-run stretching spot

    Self-Perception (changed by action) …since my work colleagues never knew the me-that-didn’t-exercise, all they know is me with my new habit.  This has done a number on my self-perception: my physical activity is a big part of who I consider myself to be now.

  • Convenience (trail out back, good weather) I’ve got a beautiful trail in my backyard for running (I can see it from my patio) – it skips over beautiful creeks, I witness fox and deer on a regular basis, and this summer wasn’t so painfully hot and humid as the previous ones. On that same token, my gym is near work, and when I go to the gym early, I beat traffic and save 15 minutes or so off my commute.
  • IMG_2221Prompts (reminders)  For my other health-oriented habits, like drinking more water, getting enough fruit, and heading to bed on time, I knew that these wouldn’t take much time at all, but I needed to do them throughout the day – not all at once.  I’m using an app called Balanced, which provides a nice reminder based on frequency (not time of day) to have that glass of water, get up and take a walk, be grateful, water my plants, and get 8+ hours of sleep most nights.

For both behaviors, ACCOUNTABILITY by COMMUNITY played a significant role.  My community – as an example, as a support, and as a positive reward – plays a central role.  At work, I have found a community that supports and congratulates a composting habit, among other sustainable practices.  My partner at home, trainer at the gym, and yoga instructors and fellow yogis provide a supportive community for my new healthy habits.  Community can be the tipping point: A friend, who has really picked up running, said that she had tried to “be a runner” for the last 10 years, and finally felt like she was one now that she was doing Team in Training and has a community to run with.

For all the research studies and linear processes of community-based social marketing, it is important to remember that behind the “social norms” and other tools, it is community that is truly still the most potent lever and key to persistent change.  Actions not supported by a community will not last.

Build a community that (at least looks like it) supports a certain behavior, and we can begin to unlock that composter, energy conservationist, garden grower, yogi or runner in each of us!