How to gamify the journey to an eco-friendly lifestyle


This has been an incredibly hot summer with many parts of India recording the highest temperatures in 122 years. Meanwhile, floods have devastated Assam and Bangladesh causing millions to be marooned or flee their homes. These aren’t random events. The newest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) paints a scary picture of heatwaves, droughts and storms becoming more common and more extreme.

Humans are usually highly motivated to avoid threats so why do we ignore the threat of climate change? There may be several reasons. First, it requires us to give up short-term benefits for longer-term gain. We are really bad at making such trade-offs; for instance, we overeat despite knowing it’s bad for our health.

Second, climate impact, like smoking, is non-linear; its effects aren’t obvious until the damage is very high. We fool ourselves by pretending that one more cigarette can’t do that much harm. A third reason is that its effects are still distant. Reading about melting Himalayan glaciers, or floods in Assam doesn’t touch our own comfortable life. Finally, there is the ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ where we each selfishly plunder a shared finite resource because it’s ‘free’ or because the cost is shared by 7.5 billion others; or at the very least we don’t believe that our individual action will make any difference. The net result is that, like the proverbial frog in the pot, we risk boiling to our death through inaction. Ask yourself how much you’ve intentionally changed your own consumption and lifestyle to reduce your environmental footprint. If you’re like me and most people, the honest answer will be very little or even negative.

There are at least three reasons why change must start with us. The first is because people like us contribute disproportionately to climate change. Carbon emissions are entirely driven by our consumption of materials and energy; the richer we are the more we consume and emit. Globally the richest 1% or 75 million people contribute double the emissions of the bottom 50% or 3.5 billion people!! It is the same in India; the top 20% of households emit seven times the emission of the poor, according to a study by a Japan-based institute. Things won’t improve till we reduce our consumption of everything.

The second reason is because people like us run all our institutions, our businesses and government. If we haven’t changed our own mindset, lifestyle and habits, it’s extremely unlikely that these institutions will really embrace change. Change will remain an intellectual exercise with a lot of gobbledygook about ESG, Net Zero and circular economies but precious little real action. It is only when we leaders change our own behaviour that our organisations begin to change. Finally, we inspire others by our own actions; change goes viral. So, contrary to the belief that “my puny efforts will not really matter”, it’s the only thing that will cause real change. As Gandhiji said, we have to be the change we wish to see in the world.

So, what can you really do? The fundamental problem is unsustainable consumption so start by becoming conscious of what you consume. Use less, use longer, use wisely. Our parents and grandparents lived very sustainably. But that was before plastics, China, e-commerce, and before we had a lot of disposable income. So, we bought a lot less. We used our cars, appliances and clothes much longer. We used fountain pens and cloth bags. We reused and recycled everything including paper bags and bottles. We ate less meat, and more fresh, local and seasonal fruits and vegetables.

Someday big businesses may be more responsible and sustainable. Someday we will have figured out how to price things to include their environmental impact so we will think twice about our casual buy-use-throw habits. Someday when a lot of innovation results in green packaging, green steel and building materials, and renewable energy, our excessive consumption may be less catastrophic. But till we get to this utopian future, the onus of consuming less and more responsibly lies with us. I’ve found that what works for me is to gamify my consumption. Just like my phone app that tracks my steps and encourages me to walk 10,000 steps/day, setting small challenges for myself is a lot of fun. Can I reduce my electricity bill by a bit every month? Can I go for a month without buying anything that’s not essential? How close can I get to zero plastics? Can I turn vegan? Do I really need to get on a plane to New York and generate two tons of CO2 or is it just my pent-up desire after two years of Covid isolation?

Change is also easier when you are part of a like-minded community. I’ve gained a lot by being connected with neighbours who are environmentally conscious. It’s how I learn and embrace new ideas. It’s why we started segregating our wet waste and began composting and recycling. It’s how we found chemical-free alternatives to household cleaners. Our neighbours inspired me to install rooftop solar. It’s fun to compete on how much we’ve cut our electric bills or plastic use. We are able to work with local government and civic organisations to improve waste management. Now, we are tackling much bigger challenges like carbon offsets for unavoidable air travel. Such neighbourhood communities also improve social cohesion and resilience which is critical when dealing with crises such as Covid.

Many years ago, a friend gifted me a NASA T-shirt which said “Good Planets are hard to find”. It’s true; as far as we know our planet is unique in the universe. Our home is on fire. Everyone of us needs to do our bit to save it.

Venkatesan is chairman of the Global Energy Alliance for People & Planet and author of ‘What the Heck Do I do with my Life?’

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Disclaimer

Views expressed above are the author’s own.

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