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The familiarity of an idea

The first time I heard of cloth toilet paper, it was some years ago an internet homesteading group, and the person posting called it "unpapering." They asked if any other people didn't use disposable paper or plastic products at all, and while we were already doing cloth napkins and rags, my immediate reaction to the idea of cloth toilet paper, which I'd never encountered before was "ugh!"

At around the same time, I had four small kids in diapers, using partly cloth (two were going to school and had to use plastic there), including cloth wipes. That is, I was wiping the behinds of not one but four small children with what was effectively cloth toilet paper, and I still reacted to the idea of using it on me with an instinctive "I'll never do that." I had managed to comparmentalize, imagining, that somehow, my rear end was fundamentally different than the rear ends I was wiping.

I ran into the idea here and there in the oddest places over a while, until I got to the point that I would actually defend cloth toilet paper as "perfectly reasonable" - I just hadn't done it yet. But over time and with regular contact with the concept, it moved from "out there" to "ok in principle" quite quickly. I stopped compartmentalizing at some point - I made the connection between the fact that I wipe up bottoms *all the time* with cloth, and that it really wouldn't be that different.

Then came the radical transition point - someone mentioned something that had never occurred to me - that you could keep your paper tp for pooping, and use cloth for pee. Suddenly, the light went on, and I began looking speculatively at a pile of old t shirts. I suddenly realized that one of my most basic assumptions - that this was an all-or-nothing idea, was wrong. Pretty soon the scissors were out, and we were using cloth tp. It didn't take long until we preferred it - way more comfy.

Cloth toilet paper took me longer than most ecological changes to make, because it involved so many other cultural assumptions - first I had to get over the idea that one's out bodily output was too gross to have anything to do with. Parenthood and my first read of Jenkins's _Humanure Handbook_ took care of that. Then I had to run into the idea, get over my immediate aversion, see that it was an idea that others held and that it wasn't too "weird," and then find an accessible way to do it. And then I actually figure out what I could use for tp, try it and keep trying it.

The most fundamental issue here for me, was familiarity. There are some ideas you run into once and immediately say "Why didn't I think of that" and implement it in your own life, but there are many other things where the first time you confront an idea, you can't do much more than file it away as a weird factoid. Without context and familiarity, it is just too hard and too strange.

How do we differentiate between ideas that immediately get dismissed and those that percolate a while, perhaps leading to further change? How do we help people get familiar with any change that seems to go against cultural pressures, from putting a garden on their front lawn to composting their own wastes?

My own experience is that the following five things all help a lot. I think one of the most important things that bloggers and other environmental activists can do is to simply present new stuff in an accessible way, that helps get people past those first hurdles of resistance.

1. Expose people to the new idea, repeatedly if necessary. They say that to get a toddler to try a new food, you may have to offer it to her as many as 20 times. Grownups, I think, are often even more conservative than toddlers - the first time we confront an idea, we might not even notice it. The second time we might instinctively reject it. It might take three or four or twenty times for an idea even to translate all the way into awareness of it.

Think about peak oil - the idea that we'll eventually run out of fossil fuels itself is often hard for people to grasp, which is weird, because of course, we all should know that. In order to get to the idea that we're at or near an oil peak right now, we have to get people to grasp a whole host of subtler ideas, including the fact that oil is a finite resource for which there's no obvious replacement. Intellectually, most of us know that. In practice, millions of people, maybe billions, have never gotten their heads around that factoid enough to be able to translate information about peak oil into knowledge. The more times they hear this information, and the more sources they hear it from, the more that "click" moment is likely to happen, allowing them to take the next intellectual step. So it is important to reiterate information all the time - yes, it can be boring for those in the know, but it is absolutely essential.

2. Let people know that other people who they know, like and respect are doing this. Let's be honest, we're all vulnerable to peer pressure, at least a little. When I run into a new idea, I usually categorize it by the context I find it in - that is, if it comes along with a lot of other things I find crazy or wrong, I might not do the hard work of sorting out the one gem in there. And if I'm forced to think "Oh, well Annie does that, and she's not too weird..." I can associate it with "normal" people.

I'm not sure that this is one that I do especially well - I doubt many people think "Oh, Sharon's so normal..." ;-), but I do think that one of the most helpful things I can do is point out "I bake my own bread for a family of six. I am a normal slob of a person, not some superwoman, but I can do it." Other people may then begin to think "we normal slobs can begin to bake our own breads..."

2. Respond to the appeal to "irrelevant authorities" - that is, people like to think that new ideas come with authorization. If you can show someone an article in the paper, or print out a list from the internet that mentions your new idea, you've automatically transferred it from teh category of "weird thoughts in my head" to "thoughts worthy of being written down." Now we all know that just because things are written does not make them truth, but still, there's something to words on a page or a screen that makes the idea accessible.

I've come to realize one of my own primary roles in the world is to take the heat from other people's spouses off of them. That is, I can't count the times that someone has told me "I got my wife to do X, and said to blame it all on you because you said so." And I think that's great (I just wish it worked on my husband, who has a much more jaundiced view of "Sharon said" than many people's spouses apparently do ;-)). I'm fully prepared to blamed by people I've never met and often never will meet for driving them crazy. The simple fact is that my authority is totally irrelevant - but I won't tell if you don't.

3. Provide accessible way into the idea. Getting a garden on a front lawn might be scary - what if then neighbors object? What if the town gives us trouble? What if it gets messy, and I don't have time to maintain it and I ruin all the property values around me? What if the neighbor's kids ruin it? But half the time we don't even know why we find an idea scary or overwhelming - we can't articulate what it is that seems wrong to us, so we just say "no way." The more access we give people to new ideas, the more likely they are to adopt them - for example, offering ways to try it out without too much commitment, say, suggesting we replace foundation plantings with blueberries or that we start with one bed and interplant with flowers. The more of us who can tell our own personal stories about how we got here - or even how we're working on getting there the more times we may touch off one of those "Oh, I thought..." moments where we suddenly realize what the problem is.

4. Find the pleasure. This does not mean endless, mindless cheerleading about how everything will always be wonderful, but I do find, for example, that locating pleasures can help you jump over some of the necessary intellectual steps. I know lots of people who will not (yet) grow food to save themselves from the ravages of climate change - they simply aren't there yet, and they would have to take too many intellectual steps to get there. That may happen over time, but because I want them to grow food more than I want them to agree with me, I can circumvent the whole discussion by observing that I grow food because the food is better than any you can possibly buy, no matter how rich you are. Or that my food budget is manageable because I grow food.

It doesn't have to go systematically - you don't have to accept peak oil, for example, to see the value of local food and energy systems that provide better, healthier food. Think of it as an intellectual checkers game - figure out where you want to go, and see how many "steps" you can jump right over to get there.

5. Encourage people to try things. I'm a reader, one of those people who, confronting a new idea, gets as many books as possible together. And that's great, those books can save you a lot of time and energy. But they also can bog you down into not trying things. I know I'm perfectly capable of getting caught up in research and getting distracted from the larger question. Reminding ourselves that there's no substitute for direct experience is important - go on, try the cloth toilet paper, try making bread - the worst that happens is that you won't like it. Internet challenges and other "do it with me" projects here are enormously valuable - trying something new is intimidating, trying something new with other people to ask for advice, and other people brave enough to admit their errors is different.

Getting past our fear of failure is the other thing that we need to work on. Even when there are no stakes at all, people hate to make mistakes or be wrong. I think one of the most important things we can do is admit our mistakes, laugh at them, and encourage other people to try and fail sometimes. Because the reality is that the stakes are small in many cases - if you've never built anything before, and you get out there with a hammer and nails, the worst thing you'll do is get a sore finger and have your chicken tractor fall apart. Life goes on. There are some things you shouldn't try without knowing what you are doing - pressure canning, using a chainsaw, anything that can kill you. But for the most part, you have to make some mistakes to get good at something, you have to take some risks and try something before you can do it - and the more we can help people feel comfortable with making mistakes, the more competent people there will be out there.

Me, I'm past the cloth tp hurdle and moving on to the "make your own pet foods" challenge, an idea that has been percolating for a while. How about the rest of you?

Sharon

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