He constructed his house using mud, wood and lime.
Lebanese architect Nizar Haddad’s dream was turned to reality after he built an eco-friendly, self-sufficient house for himself back in Baskinta, Lebanon. It was a reflection of what he wanted environmental architecture to look like. “Due to the industrial revolution and the introduction of concrete, all those old sustainable techniques of building homes that our ancestors used, were put aside. I would see so many houses built from natural materials, when I would go on hikes,” Haddad told Gulf News, explaining that this motivated him to try similar methods for his own home.
Realising that architectural engineering pollutes both water and air, and is inefficient, he wished to blend modern construction techniques with organic materials. “I wanted to do it in a way that would guarantee comfort of the modern life. A mix of the old and new for a better future,” he says. Haddad made sure that he did thorough research. He conducted workshops, read books and spoke to different people around the world. “I got enough knowledge to build this prototype. I used tyres, repurposed and natural materials,” says Haddad. He wished to do this to raise awareness about the pollution associated with construction.
His house termed ‘Life House’ functions on a rainwater collection system and solar panels on the roof. The walls of the house are made from mud and brick, with upcycled glass bottles to provide some light. There’s even a glass room in the house, that cools and heats the house, and it lets him plant fruits.
There are many like Haddad, who do try to inculcate sustainable practices in their daily life. On the other hand, there are others who are well-intentioned, yet, are unable to follow through.
However, the alarm around climate crisis and global warming has grown. As a result, the conversation surrounding sustainability has increased manifold.
The need for sustainability and the green gap
The concept of ‘sustainability’ has acquired much weight in the past few decades.
Put simply, it means the ability of human development to meet world needs, without the ecological systems being harmed. Over the past few years, the panic about global warming has gathered intense momentum.
It’s a state of crisis, says Iain Black, a professor of sustainable consumption, who leads the Strathclyde Business School's sustainability strategy. In basic layman terms, the Earth’s temperature has increased, due to the burning of fossil fuels that has led to greenhouse gases being trapped in the atmosphere. This excess heat has had a ripple effect across the planet. There has been a change in weather patterns and growing seasons. For instance, Britain faced its hottest summer in 2022, with 40 degrees. The polar ice caps are melting. As the global climate crisis grips the world, it has almost become imperative for people and governments to act sustainably.
Unfortunately, there appears to be a struggle on bridging the green gap – this is when intentions don’t translate into action for the environment.
It is difficult to have a straightforward answer why the green gap persists. The question ‘what stops people from acting sustainable’ is too simplistic. The reasons cannot be relegated to something simplistic as ‘lethargy’, laziness, or procrastination. Far more complicated and layered, it’s a complex web of socio-political, cultural and psychological reasons.
Living in a perpetual state of anxiety
You would remember the videos and photos of forest fires in Australia in 2020 and UK in 2022. You would have read enough and more about the scorching heat in Britain last year. The thick pollution clouding Delhi skies in India after Diwali has continued to make headlines, year after year. People walked around with masks, and watering eyes. You recall the bushfires in Australia, during 2020. The list goes on.
The climate crisis is always on our radar; we feel it seeping into our lives on a daily basis. It fuels our already existing anxiety and stress. These behavioural manifestations have found new terminologies connected to the climate crisis, including ‘eco-grief’, ‘eco anxiety’, and ‘eco-rage’, explains UK-based climate psychologist Meghan Kennedy in her book Turn the tide on Climate Anxiety, published in 2022.
There is a splurge of new definitions now. We know what ‘doom scrolling’ means, which is the act of just constantly reading disturbing news on our newsfeeds. This leaves us feeling overwhelmed, detached, hopeless, grief-stricken and despondent, she writes. We start believing that the crisis is ‘unsolvable’.
People, plagued by these emotions, begin to feel that their contribution is too small for a crisis of such a magnitude. If these emotions are managed poorly, it will inhibit us from taking necessary action to turn the tide on the climate crisis.
Moreover, distress regarding the climate crisis can lead to disengagement and burnout. This further arises, when people are confronted with overwhelming information about the climate crisis. The seeping dread, interspersed with periods of panic, compel people to believe that their world is ending. This world, indicates their relationships, dreams, and the security that they have enjoyed till now, will disappear.
Stages of eco-anxiety
Eco-anxiety was described by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) in 2017 as “a chronic fear of environmental doom”. According to a 2018 national survey, almost 70 per cent of people in the United States were worried about climate change, and around 51% felt “helpless”, as per the UK-based website Medical News Today.
It can range from mild to severe. In the cases of mild eco-anxiety, we are upset, but can be distracted, explains climate grief researcher Britt Ray in her book, Generation Dread: Finding Purpose In The Age of Climate Crisis, published in 2022. We believe that others have the solutions to the crisis, which gives us some temporary relief. Here the anxiety can subside if we focus on our own personal actions. For instance, reducing wastage, composting, and food choices.
In the case of medium anxiety, we feel more disturbed frequently. Yet, we are still relying on ‘others’ to find the solution and believe that mythical ‘experts’ will solve the crisis for us, Ray further writes.
In the case of severe eco-anxiety, we’re living in a permanent state of worry, almost sleepless. We are constantly brooding about the state of the world, how our generation is affected, and the future of the coming generations. This anxiety is detrimental to our mental health, as it affects our sleep patterns, inter-personal relationships and overall productivity. In the end, we can’t look after ourselves, and neither are we are not able to contribute to the cause of the environment.
Kennedy suggests that we need to start with our own self-care, and showing up for ourselves before we can tackle something as serious as the climate crisis. This involves focusing on therapy, fostering strong relationships with ourselves and the environment, and making achievable goals. More importantly, we need to change our mindset from viewing the climate problem as ‘unsolvable’. Also, instead of always leaving it to ‘others’ to handle the crisis, we can start ourselves.
The power of doomscrolling
Doomscrolling is exactly as it sounds. You’re filled with a sense of impending doom as you keep scrolling through your newsfeed. The feed is filled with articles about global warming, and how the world will end in the next century.
Stephen King, a published academic in the field of sustainability, and member of the Institute of Sustainable Development at Middlesex University Dubai, elaborates further on the regular use of social media in this context. Calling the nexus an echo chamber he says, “Your social media feeds send you content. You get caught in that echo chamber. People get immersed in this environment and they get stressed, and then many are not in the mindset to do anything about it.” There’s just more fear and negativity around. He adds that one needs to think with a “cool head” and work on solutions, rather than living in that state of chronic panic.
People are too hard on themselves sometimes, adds King. They feel responsible, and want to assuage their guilt. They want to see instant changes. King says that saving the earth from the current climate crisis is a ‘long running program’. “If we focus too much on the immediacy, we put too much so much pressure on ourselves and prevent ourselves from achieving our goals,” he explains.
He cites changes that have taken place in the last decade itself, including the growth of electric cars, which emit lesser greenhouse gases and pollutants than diesel cars. “We shouldn’t interpret slow progress as no progress. There are structural things that we have to overcome,” says King.
Is it indifference?
Until something impacts us directly, we don’t see it as a direct threat.
Black, the professor of sustainable consumption, who leads the Strathclyde Business School's sustainability strategy, says, “The research on this shows that when the crisis is further away from our time and place, we don’t really care enough to take action. Unless we have family or friends there. It’s sad to say, but true. We are sad about it, but we really only act when it affects us. Last summer, for the first time ever, Britain had wildfires that destroyed houses. It was an emergency, and that’s why the government acted on it. Then people take action, but by then, it is too late,” he says.
Yet, it might not necessarily be classified as indifference. Girish Banwari, psychiatrist at Medcare Camali Medical Centre Jumeirah, says, “I would say that something that is not perceived as an immediate threat, we wouldn’t see the need to take action. For instance, look at the Covid-19 pandemic. I knew that my family or I could be affected. That’s why I wore a mask. I did it because it had an immediate bearing on me. There was motivation because I didn’t want to affect my family.”
In the case of the climate crisis he adds, people mostly don’t think that they feel the direct impact. There is no immediate risk to them. So, they don’t change their habits to something more sustainable.
People may also fail to act because they feel that a change in their own behaviour is too small to have an impact on the bigger issue, adds Ioannou. A lot depends on environmental knowledge, concern and attitude. People are sceptical towards environmental claims, says Aseel Takshe, an associate professor in the department of health, Canadian University, Dubai. Moreover, green gap exists because it is also linked to how people perceive environmental behaviour effectiveness. People feel that being environmentally concerned is not effective nor rewardin. "They don't feel that they are responsible for the environment," she adds.
Validation and herd mentality
Seeking validation is an innate human trait. Most of us desperately want to be validated by society. We wish to feel like we ‘belong’ somewhere.
These human tendencies and desires reflect in the attitude towards the environment. “For example, a person buys a fancy car to impress their neighbours and friends,” explains Banwari. “It seems like a better alternative to them, instead of choosing public transport. The immediate need is validation, versus something that they believe society would not approve of. If someone has money, but takes the metro, they get worried about being questioned. We start thinking that we are being judged.”
In short, we’re always thinking, “What will someone else say?”
Another reason is also herd mentality. “You wear a mask. You walk into the mall and see no one else wearing a mask. You want to do what everyone else is doing. You don’t want to look awkward,” Banwari illustrates further. “It’s the fear of looking different. Hence, if you are the only one, who is following certain measures, and others are behaving irresponsibly, you want to be a part of the larger crowd.” People imitate behaviours that others follow, that could be harmful for the environment. It’s this herd mentality behaviour, which makes people want to conform to what others are doing,” he adds.
Lack of knowledge, awareness
There is a substantial portion of people who aren’t even aware about the gravity of the climate crisis.
There are plenty reasons that may explain why people say they will act sustainably but fail to do so, says Ioannis Ioannou, an academic at the London Business School in England. An advisor to companies and businesses on sustainability, he says that this discrepancy may arise due to a lack of knowledge, resources or opportunities to act sustainably.
It’s the fear of looking different. Hence, if you are the only one, who is following certain sustainable measures, and others are behaving irresponsibly, you want to be a part of the larger crowd.
There needs to be an acknowledgement that in fact among people, there is a climate emergency, explains Black. “We need to know there is a relationship between what we do, and we buy, has an environmental impact, some of it worse than others. We have to understand that our actions can lead to the emission of greenhouse gases,” he says.
Quite often, there’s a lot that isn’t even in peoples control. A majority of our decisions are not made by us, says Black. We have to fundamentally question at a basic level. “For instance, you choose how to go to a supermarket. In reality, it is not chosen by you. The roads are chosen for you,” he elaborates further. “Quite often, there’s no train that you can take, or a bus. Public transport works well, when it is incredibly frequent. It’s cheap. But if it is not there, and you have so many things to do. You would take a car,” says Black. It’s a structural issue that needs to be addressed as well; the entire onus doesn’t lie on consumers.
You have to have the choices available, you cannot punish the people for not giving them the choices, says King, supplementing Black’s point.
We need to know there is a relationship between what we do, and what we buy. It has an environmental impact. We have to understand that our actions can lead to the emission of greenhouse gases.
The phrase ‘old habits die hard’ isn’t casual; it carries weight.
People are too comfortable, and set in their habitual routines. We like our comfort zones, says Banwari. “We prefer convenience. Our habits become our comfort space. We keep doing things over and over again. It becomes a part of our life,” he adds. It causes us discomfort to break a habit. We know that the wrong habit is causing harm to the environment. But we won’t stop. It’s easier for us to choose the unsustainable option, like using plastic bags.
“If people are used to buying unsustainable products, even when they have the best of intentions to switch to sustainable ones, they might fail to do so simply because of these habitual behaviours,” adds Ioannou.
The social environment matters
If acting sustainably is not the norm in an individual’s social circles, then intention alone is not enough to lead to action, says Ioannou.
The whole idea of sustainability is so overwhelming, says Dima Maroun, a Jordanian environmental scientist and co-founder of Thriving Solutions, a sustainability consultancy, based in Dubai. “It’s no longer just about being eco-friendly, or just eating the right food. There has been so much study, research over the past decade,” she says. Maroun feels that sometimes people don’t know where to start. Will their contribution be worth it? Will it save the planet?
However, small steps do matter. For instance, Maroun explains that she has informed both her children about reducing plastic consumption at home. She strives to bring in small changes like switching to LED lighting. “It made a huge impact on our electricity bills. So, take baby steps,” she says, explaining that a person can make several different changes to their lifestyle. This can include carpooling, carrying reusable water bottles, coffee mugs rather than disposable ones at coffee shops.
(Note: This article was first published on May 2, 2023)