Credit: iStock / roonierella

There are words to explain why people bring cloth grocery bags to Capers but drive a minivan to get there, fly halfway around the world just to visit an eco-retreat, compost every last carrot scraping but live in a 4,000-square-foot house, and donate to World Wildlife Fund while supporting a prime minister who is cosy with oil tycoons. And no, “hypocrisy” isn’t the first word on the list.

A better explanation is what psychologists call “cognitive dissonance,” or the state of holding conflicting desires or beliefs. It causes inner conflict, with symptoms ranging from a niggling feeling to intense guilt. The upside is that it can be uncomfortable enough to motivate us to change our behaviours and beliefs.

That’s where many Canadians are at. Polls indicate that most of us want to do the right thing for the environment—as long as it doesn’t mean earning less money or radically changing our lives (or being labelled an environmentalist, God forbid). The trouble is, we don’t know where to start.

Canada’s carbon-heavy lifestyle is what smoking was two decades ago: a habit we know is bad for us but aren’t quite ready to quit. Luckily, we’re surrounded by virtuous types who are all too ready to show us how.

Front-line workers for environmental campaigns say they borrow heavily on research done by behaviour-change experts in the health field. Apparently, behaviour change is easiest in small doses. “You don’t want to overwhelm people and ask them to drastically change their lifestyles up front,” says Amy Fournier, outreach coordinator for climate change at the City of Vancouver.

Instead, she and her colleagues at the city’s One Day program suggest simple, tangible actions people can take, such as installing a more efficient showerhead or taking the bus to work one day a week instead of driving. Since the program started two years ago, 6,000 people have signed up for weekly action tips delivered to their in-boxes (at www.onedayvancouver.ca)

Friends and family members who start taking action have a major influence on the rest of us. Whereas kids used to hide cigarettes from their addicted moms or dads and beg them not smoke, today’s enlightened grade-schoolers are convincing their parents to buy hybrid cars instead of gas guzzlers.

“The biggest thing I’ve seen in terms of people changing their behaviour is peer pressure,” Fournier says.

But that isn’t license to browbeat friends with predictions of apocalyptic hurricanes and biblical floods. Scare tactics don’t usually work, she says. “People close up right away.”

A better tactic is to tell stories of average people who go to extra lengths. One Day, for example, puts the spotlight on a family of six who decided to give up their second car.

Stories motivate people in two ways, says Randi Kruse, marketing specialist with the David Suzuki Foundation’s Nature Challenge. First, they arouse strong emotions that can lead to action. Second, they illustrate that making changes may involve fewer sacrifices than tangible benefits.

For example, a family with young children may not be willing to sell their car and ride their bikes everywhere, but if they switch from laundering with hot water to cold, they’ll reduce their energy use and save money too.

Skeptics, however, argue that these baby steps are a waste of time as long as the province keeps expanding highways and coal mines keep feeding the market for fossil fuels. Instead of altering our laundry habits, they insist, our energies should go toward lobbying governments to regulate industry and instate tougher greenhouse-gas reduction targets.

But legislation alone cannot offset our energy-wasting ways. In Vancouver, for example, 50 percent of the greenhouses gases emitted by the municipality come from home energy use and people driving cars—not commercial businesses or industry.

As more and more people reduce their eco-footprints, they in turn reinforce behaviour change in others and instill a sense of pride and accountability, Kruse explains. And, like ex-smokers, ex-energy gorgers usually discover that change is good.

Adriana Barton writes for the Globe and Mail and has covered society, the arts and environment for magazines including Utne, enRoute and BCBusiness.