The Proselytizer's Dilemma | Seventh Generation
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The Proselytizer's Dilemma

Author: the Inkslinger

Broken Light BulbSo I'm back from my Labor Day travels, which saw the family throw the bikes in the old jalopy and head off for a long weekend at the home of a close Relative in upstate New York.

We arrive at 5:00 pm, just as our Relative is departing to pick up his commuting wife from the train station. We say hello, then farewell, and settle in awhile. So far so good. But about fifteen minutes later, I notice that virtually every single light in the house is on. Since we're unwinding in the kitchen and don't need much more than its overhead light, I travel dutifully around the house shutting everything else off.

When the Relative returns home, he turns each light back on and comments on my having disengaged them all. Well, yeah, I say. You know...climate crisis. Melting arctic. Rising seas. Crazy weather. My daughter's future. No, says the Relative. I hate walking into a dark room. I like to have every room bright and warm. So I leave all the lights on all the time.

And he really does. The place is lit up like a residential Mother Ship. Morning, noon, and night. Whether we're in a specific room or not. Whether we're inside or out by the pool. Whether or not we're even home. Every light. Every fixture. Every space. The place must have the carbon footprint of a small South American country.

Throughout the weekend, my gentle attempts to coax the Relative to adopt a more environmentally benign lighting strategy come to naught. Mild remarks, soft rebukes, easy humor -- all bounce right off a stiff and unyielding wall. The topic is closed. The lights stay on.

Perhaps most troubling, the Relative is no fool. He's informed, and when it comes to most issues, quite reasonable. But where energy is concerned (don't get me started on his cars), he's recalcitrant and unwilling to even consider modifying his conduct to benefit the common good.

So what do I do? How do you deal with a close friend or family member who displays egregiously un-environmental behavior? How do you broach the subject, deal with it without straining the relationship, and get the behavior to change? What is your strategy? We all need to have one, because these folks, people like the Relative, are the key to the future. Those of us who are already on the eco-bus need to figure out how to get them to join us.

photo: Kyle May


doveling1 picture
I really sympathize with your situation. My husband isn't much of a greenie and while he does recycle some there could be many improvments. At any rate, change is unfortunatly something that a person can not beg, plead or force another person into doing. I am a family therapist, and while the enviroment is massivly important, your relationship with your Relative is as well. Gently educating him on the enviromental effects, the financial effects to him personally and other key points you may have is all you can do. Perhaps giving him eco friendly light bulbs for his birthday along with something else which he would want to buy for himself is a more subtle form of coersion. Also, over time, if you continue to talk about how much money your saving, or how satisfied you feel after making an enviromentally concious purchase or decision will also sway him. After six months to a year of your sharing he may begin to 'jump on the band wagon' especially if you are not alone in this battle.. If he begins to notice him friends and other relatives making these green choices as well he will most likley begin to change, even if it's turning the lights off only while he's not home. The great theorist, Abraham Maslow's higher archy of needs states that after food and safety comes belonging, acceptance and love.. Good Luck. Lauren.
Beth D. picture
Beth D.
Try asking why he's afraid of the dark.
Greta picture
Frankly, I find the refusers arrogant and self-centered -- particularly with respect to those efforts that can be made easily, conveniently, and inexpensively. I'm looking at you, my family! (I'm sorry to be so blunt, but the person who continued to throw away the beer bottles in YOUR home even asked you asked them to recycle, is an ass.) IDEA #1: If they are people with whom you exchange holiday gifts, tell them that what you would like this year is for them to try an eco-friendly change for ___ weeks/months/year. IDEA #2: When the subject of electric bills comes up, I mention my average $40 bill. When asked how that is possible (compared to their $150+ bill), I note that "I never run lights when not in a room." "Oh, yeah, and I have all Energy Star appliances in my home, use CFLs or Halogen bulbs everywhere, have motion sensor lights, do laundry conservatively, am enrolled in the power company's volunteer water heater/AC brownout program, and have my AC set on 80 degrees." [To name a few things.] All, except for replacing appliances, are cheap/free and easy to do.
Greta picture
For this specific issue, a good suggestion would be motion sensor lights. Ya know, the wall plate that has the motion sensor along with an on/off switch option. The negotiation to friend: "How about if the room could be warm and light before you enter...but just before you enter." Further sell it (in case phobia issue) by explaining how this can serve as a good alert (safety) of others entering the room.
scoobe2 picture
i would love to know how to get my neighbors to recycle. we have 4 cans (at least) on collection days and our neighbor absolutely refuses to obey town ordinance and recycle. she has 2 kids and you would think she would do it for them. it drives me nuts especially since she is a follower in every sense of the word one would hope she would do this to at least fit in. short of reporting her to the town and getting her fined any ideas to tactfully broach the subject w/o seeming preachy?
GreenOne picture
I think that most people will change if it is cheaper and better. In my opinion, it's certainly better, but not always cheaper. Some things are cheaper, like using vinegar and hydrogen peroxide to clean your counters rather than an over-the-counter product. Conversely, purchasing essential oils to create your own sprays may or may not be cheaper depending on how you're able to manage it. Seventh Generation paper towels, for example, are not cheaper than the paper towels available at Sam's Club or Costco, but the benefit is that you save trees and the Seventh Generation product actually works better. I think the real draw for environmentally-safe living is that it actually improves the quality of your life, and you may find that you make different choices that over the long-term save you money, such as turning off your lights, using energy-saving bulbs (which I admit I've yet to fully embrace because of the light quality), and doing more outdoor activities instead of an expensive gym membership (which admittedly, again, I still have). As far as lights go, admittedly I like to have some lights on in the room next to the one that I'm in. For one, it saves me the time of always having to engage them when I walk over to the kitchen, for instance, and light is important for maintaining a positive mood. It's a delicate balance for me, and I'd really like to keep as much lights off as possible. I think I just need more windows in the next place I live in.
GreenOne picture
I noticed this article today on this same topic.
radrerun picture
I just want to say thanks to everyone for their comments because it sound like a lot of us are going through the same dilemma and it sounds like the most effective way to get people to change is to lead by example and ease of use. I'll have to keep that in mind since I sometimes get so angry I've used the guilt factor and probably come across as greener-than-thou. One thing I do like to do is (because I'm a pretty enthusiastic person), I talk about how good it makes me feel to do these things because I'm not only saving money, but doing something better for the earth, too! When I talk about buying organic and/or fair trade, I talk about the added bonus of helping farmers/artisans earn what they're worth (if we pay people what they're worth, then the world is less likely to need non-profits who give to the poor). Have a good weekend everyone! Kim
NaturalGlow picture
It can be frustrating dealing with those who have not gone green yet. I myself belong to a parent support group at a Mental Health agency, because my son has Aspergers and anxiety disorders. I think talk therapy and cognitive behavior therapy can be valuable. But I don't believe that pharmaceuticals are the answer, either, since our brains don't have a deficiency of Prozac, etc. I believe our brains and bodies can be deficient in nutrition, and we are all polluted with chemicals! One of the facilitators has an open mind, and is going to see a Naturopath. I have given the group books to read, such as The Crazy Makers: How the Food Industry Is Destroying Our Brains and Harming Our Children by Carol S. But another of the facilitators is not so open, saying that the group is going to get into talks about "the chemistry of the brain", and "pharmaceuticals". She warned everyone that there is alot of "false information" out there on the internet, and in magazines. The medical community seems to be beginning to change, slowly now, with insurances covering some alternative practioners and doctors having to deal with their patients who take natural supplements and herbs. But the mental health community seems to me, to be lagging behind (except for indepentent counselors who are using energy tapping techniques).
NaturalGlow picture
Have you considered that this person may have a bit of anxiety going on? My son suffers from generalized anxiety and other phobias. I also have a friend who keeps all the lights on even when she leaves, because she "doesn't like to come home to a dark house". Later, she developed an anxiety disorder and had panic attacks. People like this could use the new lower energy bulbs. picture
I have the same dilemma, cleaning cat food cans without wasting water. I use water I have left from other cleaning jobs. If you use a diswasher, just pop the cans in with the next load. If you hand wash your dishes, leave the cans for last and use the dirty water. (btw - I keep the clear rinse water in a bowl and use it to water the flowers after I'm done with the dishes. Waste not, want not.) Another idea is when putting the food out for your cats, leave a bit in the can, put a little bit of water, cover the can and shake to mix the food with the water, then pour it in the food bowl. It may not clean the can completely, but it helps. As for inspiring recycling: I recently put a couple of buckets outside my door for paper and plastic recycling, and my neighbor took the hint and now adds his paper and plastic... Ease of change is the key, i agree. The closer the recycling bin, the more likely people will recycle. To sway a stubborn lights-on person, next time they are at your house, try lighting the dinner table with a few candles instead. It is pretty and everybody likes the flickering light of candles and the idea of romance and cozyness. I very rarely switch on my lights at home, replaced the light bulbs in the lights I do use off an on, and got a new frige. All in all, I reduced my energy use by over 50%!
Seventh Generation VT picture
Seventh Generation VT
This Forum Topic is tackling this same issue...
ebiology picture
My personal take on the whole issue is similar to DianaM's socratic approach. I don't feel that it is overly wise to push a certain viewpoint on others when each of us is just as likely to at least subtly change our own views. For instance I spent years debating with vegetarians over why going vegetarian would be any better without having learned that much about the issue myself only to at this point be struggling to become a full vegetarian myself. So in short my recommendation would be to discuss with your friends and relatives that the idea of the green movement in most cases centers around efficiency and a best options approach (my moniker for the idea of aiming for the sweet spot where the best products/solutions are obtained at the minimal cost). My thoughts on a solution for the original story are that your relative needs motion sensors on the lights. I recently went camping at a PA state park and was stunned by the simplicity of their system for lighting the bathrooms. All they did was put all of the lights on motion sensors with one "eye" pointed at the door (never have to walk into a dark room again as the act of opening the door or approaching the doorway turns on the lights) and in the case of the large bathrooms one pointed at sink area and one positioned above the stalls so that as long as you were moving at all the lights would stay on. The sensors seem to be not overly expensive and would at least keep the lights off in your relatives house when no one was home.
alissapriestley picture
I am not sure if someone has already brought this up, but how about suggesting the light timers to your relative? That way he can still walk in to every room lit up and warm, but it doesn't have to be on when no one is in the room. I made this suggestion to one of my relatives who was complaining about their children leaving the lights on all the time, and they are very happy with the way it has turned out...excuse the pun. This is a great blog. I have recently been appointed the new position of "green coordinator" at work during my pregnancy. Our company does a lot to run environmentally friendly, but we didn't recycle, or do some of the simple fundamental things until recently. I am trying to touch base with everyone in the company to get feedback about what they think of our new practices, and how we could make it less of a bother to everyone, and how we could make more of a difference. I am trying to communicate with people in a non-self righteous way, because I certainly know that although I have been a steward of the environment for more than half my life, we all have a lot to learn. And, in my opinion, we should all keep the beginner's open mind about environmental issues. I don't think that we should expect people to make changes just because people are telling them to, I think education is the key. Thank you
popupgael picture
I agree with Diana M and Wendy G - no sense in driving yourself and the relative crazy. In the BIG picture, that person's behavior won't end the world. Also, in the way that you worded what their response to the lights being off, I wonder if there is some kind anxiety or fear that that person experiences, that the lights kind of need to be on? From what you wrote, it's clearly not just a habit of turning a light on and forgetting or not bothering to turn it off. Anyway, I learned in my 20's (when I went through a "in your face" new vegetarian stage), that people don't respond well to "in your face". Since then, pretty much everyone knew I was a vegetarian. If anyone asked me about it, I felt the door open to answer to the extent I chose at the time. If no one asked, I figured it was really not my business. Changing oneself is generally a big enough task, and none of us is perfect. Not to be rude, but how far did you drive to get to the relative's home? I have read of people who were SO radical about energy conservation that they quit doing ANY unnecessary driving, and, for them, that included going to visit relatives who lived some distance away. Anyway, just a point......there is always going to be someone LESS strict about something than we are --- and always going to be someone MORE. Nonetheless, I like the 7th Gen stuff and enjoy the emails. Keep up the good work.
mygirl234 picture
JHW- what about spending a few bucks on one of those can openers that cuts around the side and leaves a smooth edge. Then just let your cat lick the can clean, you won't have to worry about it cutting itself on sharp edges and you can toss the can in the recycling.
MCCalhoun2005 picture
I understand all of your frustrations. I try my hardest to make the smallest impact I can on our environment without giving up the luxury of modern day living. I love to have my friends over for dinner occasionally. I have a very nice little recycling "station" in my kitchen. Most of my friends are really good about recycling in my home even if they don't in their own. But my one friend, who I care dearly for, refuses to recycle! I have found beer bottles in the trash and wondered who put them there. Brushed it off as a mistake and put them in the recycle bin. Later, I found more in there! I asked who threw them away and my friend said he did. I told him to please recycle. And he says that he doesn't believe in it! Outrageous! How do you choose to not believe in it! Remember, you can only do your part - and don't be afraid to stand up for yourself even if people give you grief. I have a feeling that we will see a big change in years to come.
lizjane picture
I agree that in alot of instances the age of someone plays a part. I think you have the people like my father who grew up poor and actually thinks alot of the "new fangled" things are the best stuff in the world, no matter the pollution that goes along with it. My parents live in our basement and I went green a couple of years ago and he has thought I was nuts and a "tree hugger" (like its a swearword..)ever since. If I try to talk to him about environmental issues he argues and simply refuses to listen. If I just do things the way I want and show by example he slowly comes along. He is finally recycling but only for me he says. Sigh... I have had a good effect on friends and neighbors just by doing my own thing and being green, but you just can't talk to most people, their eyes glaze over and it all starts to bounce right off of them. Very very frustrating. I really wish you could make people see the light, but you can't.
samwise picture
Regarding Michelle Norton's post of earlier today regarding "Mad Men", I too saw that episode &, originating in the English countryside where we take our picnic trash (called "litter" in England) home with us, was horrified. I asked my husband (an American), "Is that what people DID??" to which he replied, "Yes--& people still do it". I made one of my oft-repeated soapbox remarks: "America the beautiful--ankle deep in trash". I guess everyone expects someone else to pick up after them. If the cigarette packet or water bottle or candy-bar wrapper fits in your pocket when it's full, how come it doesn't fit in your pocket when it's empty? Samantha Drab (North Wales, PA)
Wendy Gantos picture
Wendy Gantos
I think once you realize you can't change anyone and stop struggling with the issue, you will be happier. The best way for change is to lead, not force.
solo trekker picture
solo trekker
Well, hey. Guess I qualify as old being as I'm 60; I've been recycling all my life. My parents did. My fellow hippies did. My kids do. But my middle kid who's in her late 30's has a different attitude about some things. She's a shopaholic - loves new clothes, etc. Says she works hard to get what she wants so if she wants it she deserves it. She does try to conserve energy, recycle, etc. but only if it's no bother, fits her lifestyle, etc. Same with organic biodynamic foods. Kinda frustrating! If she wants something - like to eat meat or fish - she chooses to stick her head in the sand about issues regarding it - because she wants it. She gets pretty annoyed with me and her brother and sister when we try to encourage a more responsible attitude. If anybody comes up with a good arm twister, I'd sure like to know!
Donna B. picture
Donna B.
OK, I can't believe someone would pay that much $$$ just to leave the lights on??????? My sister in law is from Plattsburgh, NY where electricity is dirt cheap.
Greenery picture
My brother's house is like this. A/C on overdrive all the time. House is constantly freezing inside and plastic water bottles stacked in the second fridge. Second fridge out of three...four if you count the ice machine. They turn on every light in the universe and one day I decided to do something. I gave them as a gift a Britta filter pitcher and some CFLs. They thought it was the strangest gift ever and make fun of me endlessly for it. Not only that, he brings it up to other people that I gave them that stuff and how strange I was for it. He turned the whole thing into a joke at my expense. At least they are using the cfls but they now use the britta and buy stacks of water bottles. Kids they say. I never drank out of a plastic water bottle as a child. They didn't even have them and that was only in the 70's. I would have been grateful if someone had set up my house with cfls.
DianaM picture
Having gone through a serious proselytizing phase when I learned about environmental disasters during my college years, I know that it does no good. Even non-confrontational, casual statements about the environment can be received with extreme defensiveness by non-environmentally minded people - these people might think they are being attacked because they don't consider environmental issues when choosing how to live their lives. This may seem silly, but I also think about the times I have been so emphatic about an issue, only to change my mind about the details and balance of that issue. Knowing this as a possible fate for my current beliefs as well, why would I go on a rampage trying to make converts to my belief system if it could be so temporary. Given these experiences, I currently opt for a more Socratic approach. Now, this approach can seem condescending at times if used inappropriately, but I use inquiry equally for my friends and family as for myself. The truth is, I don't know that I have all of the answers. I want the dialogue, mostly. I think the nature of the attitude one takes towards a person: kind, non-judgmental and open, is of the utmost importance in this case. And, you have to be prepared to live with people who are not going to change. It's good to remember that these people are not irrevocably damaged - we all have our flaws. I have been eating vegan for some time and I am certainly on no quest for the vegan cause. Because of this, my family so generously accommodated my diet with specially prepared lasagnas and chili over last year's holidays. The more confident and comfortable a person is in their beliefs - and I do believe this is best exhibited by example - the more respect and attention that person will receive.
jhw picture
Michelle, so you know there's hope for people in their 50s and 60s, my mom (who's 79) was recycling before almost anyone knew what it was. We lived in the country and she had to pack everything up -- tie up the newspapers, take the labels and ends off of cans and flaten them, etc. But she did it religiously. And help. How can I recycle cat food cans without using lots of water to clean them out. Where I live is in the middle of a severe drought and using water for that is not something I'm comfortable with.
pmbb321 picture
Since I don't have Relatives in this country I am referring to my friends and neighbors here: If people have a general trust in you and value you for your good judgement and humor they will be more likely to follow your example. I have been "green" for a long time and it comes effortlessly to me. When my guests see how easy it can be (cloth napkins; cloth wipes; easy recycling setup; special shower faucets, shopping bags in the car ready to be used)- over time some of my friends have come around as well. The pocket book argument works too, but ease of change seems more important! My favorite "green" thing to do is hang up laundry on a drying rack: now I haven't seen many of my friends doing that yet - they think it's too "public" -! The good news: Both my kids and my husband are firmly on the "green" side and my older one, who no longer lives at home, is now doing the same thing: convincing friends and housemates by doing much of what she has learned at home over the years! P.B. New Jersey
nicolekali picture
My pet peeve is watching my Relative dry her hands with a paper towel every time she washes them... I think I've bought one roll of paper towels in the past year and only use them for really dirty jobs (like cleaning out the kitchen drain). I always have cloth towels hanging around the kitchen and bathroom, so at least people are forced to make the change when they're at my house. It's amazing how people can be so green in other ways (the same Relative has a solar-powered home) and still refuse to break one little bad habit.
T-Meg picture
...instead of trying to appeal to his energy sense, which he apparently has none of, I would try to appeal to his pocketbook and say something like "You could save a TON of money if you would switch to the CFL light bulbs. My electric bill went down $XYZ when I switch my house over." I fight the same fight with my family members. My sister lives in a community that picks up recyclables on the sidewalk for FREE once a week. I was furious when I found that out and found out that she didn't recycle! How irresponsible! So... here was my approach... I didn't say anything to her, it would have made her mad because I could *NOT* have been tactful LOL. Instead, the next time my niece spent the night, my girls and I loaded up the car and took our recycling to the local center. The niece thought it was so cool. She talked to me about it, and I told her about how her neighborhood picks up on the curb. She went home and immediately insisted that the family recycle. Maybe my tactic was a little underhanded, but hey, whatever works.
Michelle Norton picture
Michelle Norton
I find that it is a generational issue as well ... my parents and their friends (all in their late 50s, early 60s) seem to be steadfast in their resistance to recycling or living a greener lifestyle ... and it INFURIATES me, because in many instances it boils down to plain laziness. Whenever I visit, I find myself picking through the garbage, pulling out recyclables ... and running around the house, turning off lights / appliances and lowering the heat / air conditioning. When I ask them if they have recycling available (I play dumb sometimes to open up the dialogue) they openly admit that it is ... but they just can't be bothered. It makes me crazy. Then I saw, in last week's episode of MAD MEN on AMC, a scene where the main character and his family go on a picnic. When they are packing up to go home, he football-style throws his beer bottles into the woods, while his wife shakes all their trash off the picnic blanket, onto the grass, load up the trunk ... and they leave all the garbage behind. The camera lingers on this scene. It says so much.
shop4mar picture
How about inviting this friend to your house for the weekend & let him get a taste of green living. He may decide it's not so difficult to change habits after all. Some of our relatives don't even recycle. We've seen a slight change in behavior just by making sure we recycle at every party & camping trip. No one likes to be told what to do, or have guilt place upon them. But if you show how easy it is to do the right thing, sometimes people do change.
Nicole T picture
Nicole T
I, too, have similar Relative problems. Said Relatives are also fairly informed and responsible, but are lacking in true literacy. I think this is due mostly in part from mixed messages from the media, and a general resistance towards change. Instead of keeping the Mother Ship afloat, it's the old bottled water habit. The argument there is because of their kids. Apparently, reusable water bottles would get too dirty and would constantly be getting lost. But I wonder, if a 9 year old can bring home their lunch box everyday, what's the difference?
SarahT picture
We've encountered similar issues with Relatives. They even live very close to a Large Lake, and were eventually accepting of more lake-friendly laundry & dishwashing products, but lights, to no avail. On, Mother Ship, all the time. What about baby step - switching to CFLs? Lesser of evils?
Steve B. picture
Steve B.
I have the something similar going on with relatives of mine, I've encouraged them to choose green power, so at least they would be purchasing renewable power to light up the house like a Christmas tree.