Here at Scout, we put a lot of thought into motivating people to make better decisions. We often discuss the best ways to engage people on environmental issues and then help them take action. We ask questions like: how can we encourage people to change harmful, wasteful, or unhealthy behaviours? How can engagement with Canadians have a real and lasting impact—for their health, and the environment?
The short answer? It’s difficult.
We humans are complicated creatures when it comes to mustering energy to act, especially when it comes to large-scale environmental issues such as climate change. While we’re mostly good at recognizing the long-term consequences of our actions (e.g., burning fossil fuels leads to increasing greenhouse gas emissions, which in turn contribute to global warming), we’re often far less effective at changing those actions—to breaking from our bad habits and doing something beneficial.
In part, this is due to the massive scale and seemingly remote impact of global environmental issues. It can be difficult to prioritize a problem if it’s happening somewhere far away—or will be worse for us only sometime in the distant future. And this has led many of us to make climate change much less of a priority than it should be.
“As science is revealing, many of the actions we can take to improve our health are the exact same choices we can make to improve our environmental impact.”
Conversely, and on a positive note, many of us are much more likely to be motivated by immediate benefits to our own health and wellness. It’s been suggested that one of the strongest motivators of behavioural change is personal perception of health-related risks, and that promoting actions linked to immediate health benefits can be more effective than actions linked to benefits to our environment.
In essence, framing issues around protecting and bettering your audience’s health can be more compelling than nudges about the environment. Better results come from making issues as personal as possible—through offering concrete actions we can take right now to improve our health and well-being, and real ramifications if we fail to act.
Luckily, we may be able to have our cake and eat it, too. As science is revealing, many of the actions we can take to improve our health are the exact same choices we can make to improve our environmental impact and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. By doing good for our health, we benefit the planet—a tag-team win for overall wellness!
Three Simple Actions That Benefit Your Health and Our Climate
1. Eat Fewer Animal Products
A recent study in The Lancet states, “A large body of work has emerged on the environmental impacts of various diets, with most studies concluding that a diet rich in plant-based foods and with fewer animal-source foods confers both improved health and environmental benefits.”
Indeed, there’s been a lot of press lately about the health benefits of eating less meat. For example, Health Canada just released their new food guide, which eliminates 1940s-era food groups and recommends following more plant-based diets with fewer animal products and processed foods.
A well-balanced diet with low- or zero meat consumption has been shown to lower our risk of:
- Heart disease
- Type 2 diabetes
- Diet-related cancers
Of course, this doesn’t necessarily require an all-or-nothing approach. We don’t absolutely need to commit to full-on vegetarianism or veganism to realize many of the health and environmental benefits of reducing our meat consumption.
“Avoiding meat and dairy products is the single biggest way to reduce your environmental impact on the planet.” — Science
As noted in Harvard Health, “You can get many of the health benefits of being vegetarian without going all the way. For example, a Mediterranean eating pattern—known to be associated with longer life and reduced risk of several chronic illnesses—features an emphasis on plant foods with a sparing use of meat. Even if you don’t want to become a complete vegetarian, you can steer your diet in that direction with a few simple substitutions, such as plant-based sources of protein—beans or tofu, for example—or fish instead of meat a couple of times a week.”
So, simply reducing meat consumption can lead to improved health and well-being. But how about the environmental impact?
According to a comprehensive study reported in the journal Science, “Avoiding meat and dairy products is the single biggest way to reduce your environmental impact on the planet.” The study shows how meat and dairy consumption leads to widespread loss of wild areas to agriculture, is the leading cause of mass extinctions of wildlife, and is responsible for 60 percent of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions.
According to the study’s authors, “A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth—not just greenhouse gases, but global acidification, eutrophication, land use and water use. It is far bigger than cutting down on your flights or buying an electric car.”
2. Walk or Bike More Often
At a bare minimum, it’s recommended we get 20–30 minutes of exercise most days of the week. Combining exercise with an activity we already need to do—such as commuting to work, visiting friends or family, or even just going to the corner store—can be an easy way to introduce activity into our day-to-day routine. Rather than searching for time to exercise, our workouts can become part of simply getting from point A to point B.
Walking or cycling is a great substitute for travelling by car, especially if the distance travelled is less than 5 km if walking or 10 km if cycling. These types of active transportation have been shown to improve our sense of well-being by decreasing stress levels, improving bone and muscle strength, and lowering our rates of chronic diseases such as heart disease, stroke, obesity, cancer, and type-two diabetes.
“About 35 percent of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions come from transportation, with another 8.5 percent from agriculture.”
Switching at least some trips to active transportation can have positive environmental results, too. By leaving our car at home, we can significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and other harmful air pollutants and smog-forming emissions.
Even for trips that are too far away to walk or bike the entire distance, consider walking or biking to public transportation, or driving only part of the way and then walking the rest.
3. Take Public Transit More Often
Wait, public transit? Isn’t that just letting someone else do the driving? How can that benefit my health?
According to several studies, regularly riding the bus, train, or subway, instead of driving, can offer significant improvements to our health. This seemingly counter-intuitive finding is the result of people being more active getting to and from public forms of transportation. Researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Georgia Tech note that “Opting for mass transit over driving creates opportunities for exercise that may otherwise not exist.”
People may walk to the bus stop, walk through a train station, or walk to their destination after getting off the subway. All this activity can add up to having a positive impact on our health.
Compared to those who regularly drive themselves to their destinations, people who take public transit are less likely to be overweight, have high blood pressure, or have diabetes.
Couple these health benefits with the environmental positives and we can all win! By moving more people with fewer vehicles, public transportation can significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and contribute to improved air quality.
Changes to what we eat and how we get around can have an incredible impact on our personal health. This can lead to significant improvements to both our physical and mental well-being.
While health might be a larger driver for changing our behaviour, we can take solace in the fact that these actions can also lead to significant reductions in our emissions and environmental impact.
About 35 percent of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions come from transportation, with another 8.5 percent from agriculture. We can take comfort in the fact that eating less meat, walking and cycling more, and taking public transit will all result in a better us—and a better planet.
— Post by Mike Driedger, Scout Program Director