Why Aren't We Saving the Planet?: A Psychologist's Perspective - Geoffrey Beattie (2010)

Part II. Notes on habits

Chapter 9. Old habits

Sometimes you sense when it’s time to change. But the instigation of new actions can be a difficult and, on occasion, uncomfortable process for any individual. It may require deliberation when previously there was none, and the interruption of automatic unconscious routines to be replaced by something more conscious and controlled. Psychologists and other social scientists often talk about ‘habits’ and argue that we will save the planet only if we do something about the destructive and selfish habits of all of us. But I always find the concept of the ‘habit’ mildly disconcerting. Of course it reminds us that habits are forms of learned behaviour, not instinctual and not necessarily biologically programmed (although some may well be). The discourse about habits talks about ‘bad habits’, ‘breaking a habit’ and acquiring ‘new habits’, which is both positive and empowering. But my issue with habits is that I just do not see them as more or less behavioural accidents, reinforced in childhood by a contiguous maternal smile or by the sheer contingency of a sibling’s quiet look. They are more deeply ingrained than that, critically attached to aspects of the individual’s personality for sometimes inexplicable reasons. They are often bound up with something much deeper than chance behavioural contingencies, the way that some behavioural psychologists might have us believe.

The image of the palm tree outside my room in Mauritius, its roots fighting for survival in its new private lagoon, made me want to think about some of my core habits – the habits that define me but may be destructive forces from the point of view of the planet. One of these core habits, now that I am in confessional mode, is my sheer level of consumption and indeed my whole relationship with possessions. I buy far too many clothes, which I accumulate and hoard. These clothes and sports equipment and running shoes are part of me, and I hang on to them for years until every chest of drawers and wardrobe is full to bursting with the internal rails bowed and on the verge of breaking from the sheer weight of the clothes being hung on them. There is no room for anything else and yet I constantly buy. ‘I will find a space,’ I say to another set of disapproving eyes. Suits jut outwards from the wardrobe suspended from the handle in unsteady configurations; some shirts or suits disappear in the wardrobe and I will find them a year or two later, brand new but crumpled and creased and almost unwearable.

A few years ago I treated a shopaholic for a television series for the BBC: her name was Carmel and she lived in a bungalow just outside Derry in Northern Ireland. She was like me in many respects, at least in terms of her shopping habits. She had hundreds of items of clothing and maybe a hundred pairs of shoes. The clothes were stuffed in drawers, under all the beds in her house, including her parents’, in the wardrobe in her boyfriend’s house and even in the back of her car. It was her parents who rang the programme and as part of the ‘therapy’ I made her retrieve the clothes, often still in their wrappers, from the wardrobe and the drawers and under the beds and place them in the front room of her bungalow, eventually forming this giant haystack of clothes, then I sat on top of this clothes mountain with her and I interviewed her on camera. She was a lovely girl and very relaxed but it still felt uncomfortable, because I could have been interviewing myself. I told her off camera that I was no different from her and that I had the same fragile ego that needs that approving look which can most easily be elicited by a new set of clothes. (If you try to get that same approving look in old clothes, or even just clothes that you have worn before, you are more likely to get rejected for being too insecure and needy. With new clothes, however, you can turn on the tap of narcissistic supply and let it pump its soft, velvety liquid all over you.)

As part of the programme we fitted a heart-rate monitor to Carmel to see where the excitement of being a self-confessed shopaholic came from. Carmel could have got the buzz from the power of the credit card, or with the interaction with the sales staff or even by walking down the streets of her native Derry laden with designer bags, all attracting envious glances. But no, the buzz came, and her heart rate peaked, when she got home and tried on her new clothes in front of her family and particularly in front of her beautiful sister, because for a moment all eyes were on Carmel. It was easy for me to predict what the critical moment would be and to understand exactly what her consumption did for her, her ego and her life. It sometimes pays to be a flawed psychologist.

But from the point of view of the planet I cannot go on consuming in this way because the labels on all of these shirts and suits that I buy tell me that many of them are manufactured in China, competing to be the world’s largest emitter of CO2 and the new bogeyman of climate change. As Walker and King (2008) put it:

The pace of development in China is extraordinary. A year or so ago, China was building a new coal-fired station a week. Now it is more like two a week and counting … their new power stations are especially bad news from a climate perspective because coal is the dirtiest of all fossil fuels, producing not just smoke and smog in the cities, but also much more carbon dioxide for every unit of energy than either oil or gas. (2008:199)

But of course, life is never that straightforward: you do have sympathy with a government trying to do something about the economic gulf that exists in that country, with vast and conspicuous wealth centred in Beijing and Shanghai and yet 700 million or so people living on less than two dollars per day (see Walker and King 2008:200). As Walker and King (2008:200) point out, ‘China can say, with justice, that unlike the industrialised West, it has done almost nothing to create the climate problem, and that its citizens play on average a very meagre part in perpetuating it.’ China might have a total annual emission rate of 6,467 megatonnes of CO2, but its per capita emission rate is 5.0 tonnes per person, compared with 7,065 megatonnes for the USA but 24.0 tonnes per person (with the UK at 656 megatonnes and 11.0 tonnes per person).

I need to pass on some of the things I have bought to cut down overall consumption to slow down the pollution from China and other developing countries, but I also need to break the emotional bond between me and my possessions and to separate who I am from what I own, but I knew that this was going to be easier said than done, even when life was conspiring to help me.

In Mauritius the Hotel Maritim had a gym, and every day without fail at roughly the same time I would be there. This is also a big part of being a narcissist. The gym was quite quiet and most days it was just the instructor and me – he was a broad-shouldered Mauritian of Indian descent with a shaved head and a left eye that seemed to be permanently bloodshot, perhaps as a result of the effort he was putting into his bench presses. We would train in parallel and thereby developed a sort of bond, an intimacy that comes from routine and dedicated activity. Each day he would ask me about my runs and often he would remark on the quality of my running shoes. One day I happened to comment that in England I had maybe sixty pairs of running shoes. And from then on he kept asking me when I was leaving and whether I would be leaving in the morning or the afternoon. It was as if he didn’t want to miss my departure, although I couldn’t really understand why. But then he came right out with it and he asked me whether I would give him my running shoes when I left. ‘They are of much better quality than the ones we get here in Mauritius,’ he said. I glanced down at the shoes he was wearing: they were also Nike and I could see that they were much bigger than mine. I pointed this out to him and he explained that the shoes he was wearing were several sizes too big for him but that they had been given to him by a previous guest.

So this was my essential dilemma. I know I need to break my habits of consumption and to do something about my emotional attachment to possessions. I know I need to recycle not just tins and cans but my shirts and suits so that hundreds of other shirts and suits don’t have to be produced in the first place. Giving a pair of trainers away would be a start, a small moral act that would make me feel better about myself and might be the first step in my attempt to break one of my destructive habits, but it was never going to be easy. I sat that night full of self-reproach, raging at my lack of will. My problem is that I know that this is one of my stable and enduring traits – rooted in the insecurity of my working-class childhood and most certainly not reinforced and conditioned by those around me. This attitude to my possessions has all the wrong cogitations for a mere ‘habit’: the wrong aetiology, the wrong sustaining features and the wrong connection to my essential self.

My attitude to my possessions has always been there as far back as I can remember; indeed, one of my earliest ‘flash-bulb’ memories of my childhood centres around the destructive aspects of this attitude. Like all flashbulb memories this is something that I cannot forget, and I do try to forget it because it is an image and a narrative associated with shame, but my conscious will to forget cannot undo what has been stored unconsciously and involuntarily and, it would seem, for a lifetime. The memory concerns a visit to my uncle and aunt’s house. They lived in Lesley Street in Ligoniel, at the edge of Belfast, and some Saturdays I would take my box of cornflakes folded over at the top, and my pyjamas, and go up there to sleep between my aunt and my uncle in a house that smelt different from ours. In the morning they would sometimes let me go and play on the steep hill at the end of the street, the steep hill where my fort ended up.

My father made a fort for me at work. He was a motor mechanic for Belfast City Corporation and worked on its buses in the Falls Road depot. He told me that he was bringing something for me and I waited for him for an hour at the bus stop at the top of Legmore Street. It wasn’t my birthday or anything like that; it was just a present. I saw him in his oil-stained overalls with his glasses on, getting off the bus with something large wrapped in newspaper. He was a slight man and he could hardly carry it, but he was smiling, because he knew that I would be very pleased when I saw it. He tottered as he held it in front of him. He wouldn’t open the present until we got into the front room. Our dog Spot was jumping all over the furniture, sniffing the paper and barking, shredding the paper with his sharp teeth, too excited. The package was soon opened by the dog and me. I stood staring at the present. I had never seen anything like the fort before. It had brown metal ramparts with zigzag steps shaped out of a single piece of aluminium and a hardboard base. The whole thing was solid and well put together. It must have taken months to make in his spare time at work, and every bit of metal had been shaped by hand. I had received an expensive Christmas present that year – a rocket and missile base, in which the rocket and the missiles both fired. But the fort was different. In these rows of identical mill houses all crouching in that hollow below the hills that ring Belfast, street after street of them as far as the eye could see, all with their cheap identical flowery settees bought on credit from the same shops at the bottom of the Shankill, and the same pictures on the wall of foxes, fawns, infants – in fact anything with big eyes professing innocence and adoration – there was something individual and unique about the fort, made in and for love. And made for me.

I had hundreds of soldiers in a large rusty circular tin that stayed in the damp back room – cowboys and Indians, Confederates and Yankees, knights whose legs and arms moved and could be swapped over, called ‘Swap-its’, Russian soldiers with a red star in the middle of their grey winter hats. I had bought the six Russian soldiers in Millisle and played outside Minnie McFall’s caravan in the sand. The knights on horseback were so intricate and such a delight to look at that my mother put them on display with all the best china in the china cabinet. Two knights, the Red Rose of the House of Lancaster and the White Rose of the House of York, were on parade on the top shelf. We weren’t allowed to go near the china cabinet, or feed the gas meter which was just behind it. And when you wanted to play with the knights you had to ask for the key and remove them with a very steady hand from the glass cabinet, which always seemed to tremble and shake with all that china. I can still remember the smell of the china cabinet. All the smells that I have experienced in this life, the lavender in the quiet fields beyond Sainte Maxime, the close-up smell of drying sea-weed on those wild gull-squawking shores north of Santa Barbara, the fragrant smell of leather in the market in Hammamet with mint tea in the background, but I can still smell the inside of that cabinet with greater ease and with greater clarity than any of them, as if I have just leaned into the cabinet and breathed again. Don’t ask me to describe the smell; it must have been some kind of cleaning material that had evaporated in a glass container over many years.

All the soldiers eventually found their way into the fort. It was a generic sort of fort though it looked like Fort Laramie, from the Wild West, on the black-and-white television. But my mother told me that her daddy had been to a fort like that in India. George Willoughby she called her daddy, just in case I thought it was George Bell: my cousins Myrna and Jacqueline’s brother. My father knew of George’s days in India and this might have given him the idea that guided his craftsmanship. British soldiers of the Raj patrolled that fort at night in the corner of our front room, but no shops seemed to sell models of the enemy, whoever the enemy were. But that didn’t matter to me, a boy with a fertile and vivid imagination, in a damp, crumbling mill house, who could spend hours on the floor and not be bored. I often didn’t want to go out. I was happy in there: sometimes my mother had to make me go out and play on the street.

But one Thursday in July when I was about eleven we were going to my Uncle Terence’s and my mother told me that I was now too old for the fort and the soldiers. She was tired of cleaning my kneecaps with Vim because of the amount of time I spent on the floor. ‘You’re too old to be on your hands and knees all the time. You’re too old for that sort of childish nonsense.’ It was all done in a matter-of-fact sort of way, as if it was no big deal. The fort got in the way in such a small house. We kept it in the back room, where the wallpaper hung in great damp swathes from the slimy green wall with the damp running down in rivulets. The fort was going rusty like the metal container with the soldiers, like the tools we kept there, like everything else in the house. It had to go and it was loaded into our car. I don’t know who loaded it into the car, perhaps my brother. I was told that the poor children up in Ligoniel would love it. I was told that I had had my enjoyment. It was somebody else’s turn. I was assured that the children up in Ligoniel weren’t as well off as we were. They had no missile sites, or garages with lifts that could be wound up, or forts made at work by their fathers in good jobs. I knew that they were from big families, families sometimes with no work, Roman Catholic families. ‘Too bloody idle,’ our neighbours liked to say when Big Terry wasn’t about (I learned later that my Uncle Terence was himself a Catholic, and that, of course, was a big issue in those days in Belfast, although some days looking back now I can’t really understand why).

There was a steep hill at the end of Lesley Street; we called it ‘the dump’. I suspect that it wasn’t an official refuse site. I remember old settees with rusty springs sticking out and bags of open tin cans with large black crows picking at them. My mother told me to leave the fort out on the dump. She told me that it would be found, and that one of the boys from Ligoniel would have a childhood filled with imagination because of that fort: the fort that my grandfather had fought in, and my father had made.

My uncle came with me as I laid the fort out in the middle of a hill of refuse. Dust and hairs, human and dog, filled the cracks, ingrained and dense like thread. But it was well looked after. That’s another expression my family liked. The fort, the car and the front step that my mother would wash every couple of days on her hands and her knees, a white froth on the pavement outside the house swept away by basins of cold water. All well looked after, all cared for. Loved, if you like. It was a very Ulster Protestant way of thinking about these things.

So I carried the fort and left it in the middle of this long slope filled with human debris. A beautiful handcrafted artefact that had been at the centre of my childhood: that still was at the centre of my childhood. That perhaps was the problem. My mother decided that at eleven I shouldn’t be in the front room on all fours with cowboys and Indians and Russians with the red star on their caps. I walked back up the slope with my uncle, who talked about our dog being humiliated by a rat in Barginnis Street. ‘That dog of yours can’t bloody well fight,’ my uncle said. ‘It’s embarrassing. It’s not a dog at all.’

We all sat in my uncle’s front room, my Aunt Agnes, my father, my mother and Terence’s mother. There was a crucifix on the wall as you came in. I had only ever seen one in the Rocks’ house. I never understood what it was doing in my Uncle Terence’s house before Kevin Rock explained. My mother always said that it was something to do with Terence’s mother. I didn’t know what though. But I couldn’t stop thinking of the fort. I was always told that I was spoiled compared to some of the boys in my street, and especially compared to the boys at the top of the Ligoniel Road. I always thought that meant Catholic boys with their big families and their crammed houses, the same size as ours but packed with five or six of them to a bed, where they would sleep top to tail. They would run into their own house in the afternoon to dip dry bread in the sugar bowl that stayed in the cabinet in the front room, or they would nick a few spuds from the back of the potato lorry to roast in an open fire up the fields; they would beg food. ‘You are spoiled rotten,’ my mother would say in our back room with water running down the walls, ‘and don’t forget that.’ Deprivation is, after all, always a relative concept. I knew that I had more toys than any of them but I didn’t want to give the fort away.

I don’t know where I got the hammer from; it must have been from the toolbox in the back room of my uncle’s house. I must have had to search for it. It was a big heavy claw hammer. I hid it up inside my coat and said that I was going out. The fort was still there, just as I had left it, in the middle of the dump. No deprived child had got there yet. I sat down on the slope beside it. I suppose that it was almost like playing again. The first blow flattened two or three of the metal ramparts. The second removed one section of the metal steps. I sat on the dirty stones among the piles of rubbish and hammered away. I wasn’t emotional about what I was doing. It was a cold act. I was just determined that no child, no matter how deprived or how needy or how hungry, would get my fort where my grandfather had fought for the British Empire, where Davy Crockett, whose father came from County Londonderry, had held out against the Mexicans at the Alamo, where my dreams of lands far away from cold damp mill houses that turned everything to rust had been nurtured.

I was obviously engrossed in my little frenzy of destruction because what I remember next is my father and uncle standing over me. They must have wondered where I had got to. My father looked almost puzzled, perhaps a little hurt that he had a son who could be like this. I looked up at them. I felt ashamed and embarrassed. I needed to explain my actions, to justify myself. I remember what I said quite clearly. ‘It’s dangerous,’ I said. I remember those very words just coming out. ‘Those sharp metal ends, they could hurt somebody. You can’t just leave it here. Somebody might cut himself on it. I was just making it safe for them.’

I was led away by my father and my uncle, who didn’t say anything or even look at each other. ‘Let’s just leave it here the way it is,’ said my father eventually.

‘But it’s ruined now,’ I said. ‘It’s ruined.’ I was crying by now, sniffing loudly, wiping my nose on my sleeve. I remember looking down at the trail of smeared, green, thick mucus along my sleeve and thinking that there was just so much mucus. My voice as it sounded then is clear even now. It was a whining, imploring sort of crying that accompanied my excuses. But why I was crying I don’t really know: perhaps it was being caught red-handed, the guilt of the whole thing, the fact that there was no way to hide my shame. Or perhaps it was just my way of showing them that I was still a child, who needed to dream, whose time had not come to leave these particular things behind.

This is a memory from my childhood but a memory that defines some of the more negative aspects of my own enduring character. I become attached to my possessions, they are part of me, I cannot give them away, I cannot recycle, I cannot hand them over. But how do we break the emotional bond with material objects? And how do we stop materialism feeding into concepts of self-identity and selfworth? How do we stop people feeling insecure when they cannot define themselves in any other way except through purchase or display? If we are going to do something about global warming then we will need to change many deeply ingrained habits. Some of this will not be easy. I know: believe me, I know.