Is It Ever Possible to Suggest People Change?

Peter was buying tomatoes on the vine at the Ashland Food Co-op. He stuffed them in a plastic bag and deftly twisted it shut.

“You know, you don’t really need a bag for those,” I suggested with a smile.

“Oh Yes I Do.” Peter was categorical. A friend of my husband’s and foodie from the north of England, Peter seemed like the kind of Gen Y guy who would be open to critiquing American culture, which is the only reason I was brave enough to say something.

It drives me crazy how Americans, even the hippie progressive types who shop at the Co-op, shove one banana or a half dozen grapefruit in a plastic produce bag.

The bags aren’t necessary.

They fill up the landfills.

The ones conventionally made off-gas.

But we don’t think twice about wrapping our food in “throw-away” (this is a misnomer since it doesn’t actually go anyway anywhere) endocrine-disrupting plastic.

Do I sound shrill? I don’t mean to. But honestly it’s just as easy NOT to use the bags. You can put your fruits and vegetables directly into your cart. I’ve even bought Brussels sprouts that way.

“I use them for sandwiches,” Peter snipped.

He sounded miffed.

I felt guilty. It’s none of my business how he shops and I have no right to make suggestions. I usually hold my tongue. I had only mentioned it to Peter because I thought he would be receptive. I spent the next hour obsessing over our exchange, worrying that I had hurt his feelings, wondering if I had overstepped.

I could write Peter a note of apology and buy him one of those nifty washable stainless steel sandwich containers. I could have James deliver it to his work since he’ll be less snippy with James. I could–

“When I was at St John’s I always took a disposable cup of coffee from the dining hall,” James said when I told him about talking to Peter and how bad I felt about the exchange. “I grew up that way. I never thought about it.” James poured boiling water in the French press as he spoke.

“Then one day Oliver and another friend cornered me in the cafeteria and asked me why I always used a disposable cup.”

“Did you get mad?”

“Ut uh. I thought it was a good question and it stumped me. Why did I do that? So I went out and got this.” He rummaged around on the shelf and pulled out a handleless black glazed Japanese mug. “I used it for the rest of college. It’s still my favorite cup for coffee.”

James appreciated the criticism, examined what he had not realized was a bad habit, and changed. When our friend Brian told us about the dangers of microwaves six years ago and all the reasons not to use them, James and I both researched it and we decided to give our microwave away. When I read about how conventional cleaning products can poison small children ten years ago, I gave three buckets full to our neighbor (it’s amazing to me that I ever owned three buckets worth of cleaning products) and started using vinegar and baking soda.

When someone tells me something that I have a knee jerk negative reaction to (like lotus birth or eating calf brains), I try to think about why I’m responding with emotion and I try to open my mind to finding out more about it.

It’s really hard to do that and I fear I’m as defensive as the next person. Or I just react negatively and push the idea out of my mind, ignoring it instead of learning more.

Emory University professor Mark Bauerlein, to inspire his students to write more thoughtfully and carefully, used to remind them that writing is a habit and a habit is something you do without thinking.

We all have a lot of bad habits.

But some–like the overuse of plastic produce bags or idling the car–make such a quantifiable and negative impact on the environment on a daily basis and are so easy and simple to change.

Even if Peter doesn’t think so.

Do you think I was wrong in talking to Peter about using plastic produce bags? Do you ever make gentle (or strident) suggestions to friends or family about ways they can change? Are you open to others suggesting ways you can be more environmentally conscious in how you live your life? Do you think I’m a shrill bitch or do you think we really do need to stop our bad habits to reverse global warming before it’s too late? Am I asking you too many questions? I can’t wait to read your thoughts!

Related Post: What Descartes Taught Me About Froot Loops

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on Friday, July 23rd, 2010 at 10:23 am and is filed under social change.
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