Dear Dot: How do I get my household on the eco-bandwagon?

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Dear Dot, 

I am feeling hopeful. I’ve dispensed with plastic baggies to preserve food, and upped my game on recycling. I buy organic, and try to get out of the market without too much plastic, and certainly no bags for the fruit and vegetables. All this has been manageable. But the other people in my house don’t share my determination to make changes. I don’t want to be a nag. Any tips? 

Ann Darrow

West Tisbury

Dear Ann,

Let’s toast to hopeful. Hope can sometimes feel like a scarce resource itself, so anything we can do to help it proliferate is a good thing. But, yes, it can feel disheartening when those we love don’t share either our hope or the shifts we’ve made in response to the climate crisis.

Mr. Dot, for instance, is a dedicated carnivore, who has been known to crow, “Top of the food chain, baby!” in a distinctly caveman-like way when it is gently suggested that we move to a meat-free diet. He grumbles at line-dried clothes, which he declares “crunchy.” My son can be blamed for at least one degree of global warming because of the length of his hot showers, and no amount of nagging or leaving him in the dark (literally!) by turning off the bathroom lights gets him out any sooner. And my two daughters turn up their noses when I urge them to cycle to their favorite coffee shop rather than drive.

Many years ago, I hosted an Earth Day potluck, to which I invited about a dozen friends and neighbors. I served a meal focused on local meat and veggies, and invited each guest to bring a contribution. One baked bread. Another brought me early spring flowers from her garden. Another picked up a dozen cupcakes from a local bakery. One shared his homemade wine. But over the meal, as the wine flowed, the bread baker confessed how stressed she’d felt to get her contribution “right.” Others nodded in agreement. My heart sank. I had wanted this to be fun, I told my guests, a joy-filled celebration of our planet’s bounty. Stressed and shamed was the opposite of how I wanted my guests to feel. 

Fast-forward to now: My eldest has decided to no longer eat beef because of its outsize impact on the planet. (Thank you, TikTok, for all you do to educate our youth.) My son has discovered hiking, which has made him far more concerned about threats to wild spaces and the creatures who call it home. My youngest starts a fashion program in the fall with a focus on making the industry sustainable. And my husband, while still loving a good steak, eats it far less often, and hasn’t filled the gas tank of his hybrid electric car in over a month, because he drives so infrequently. 

My point is that demanding that others green up their acts and hew to our idea of “right” doesn’t inspire change so much as resentment. 

At that long-ago Earth Day dinner, we spoke candidly about how to achieve change, and ultimately agreed that it was less important that we get it right — which sometimes shuts us down — than that we feel encouraged to do our best. Right, we concluded, is the enemy of joy. It is the enemy of play. It is the enemy of innovation.

And so I urge you to let your family figure it out themselves, though by all means, model your own climate-friendly actions. Don’t forget to seek out the pleasure of it. If others see you joylessly eating Tofurky or growling about the plastic bag in which a friend brought you some strawberries, they are far less likely to want a piece of that lifestyle.

You can consider building in incentives. You want your son (ahem) out of the shower sooner? What if you compare water bills from his longer versus shorter showers, and 50 percent of savings goes into his bank account? Or consider engaging your family members’ competitive spirit and challenge like-minded neighbors to see who can produce the least amount of trash each week. Depending on your kids’ ages, ask what they care about most — whales? Trees? Butterflies? — and encourage them to make connections between our impact on the planet and its effect on the things they cherish. (Be careful, though. I once traumatized my chicken-nugget-loving son by showing him a video of factory farm operations called “McTorture.”)

Meet people where they are, and then wordlessly invite them to join you. But make the path appealing by walking it with a smile on your face and, yes, hope in your heart. 

Naggingless, Dot

Got a question for Dot? Let her know below:

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