It's never just one thing

This is the second in a series of eight posts detailing concepts and attitudes for sustainable personal change. As one would expect of someone maintaining a 155-pound loss for more than 20 years, my examples have to do with food and weight, but their point is to provide both concepts and practical steps anyone can take to achieve and maintain healthy change. Today’s concept: “It’s never one thing.”

Although I fashioned a headline that seems to put this concept in opposition to the previous one, headlined “It’s all one thing,” they’re actually corollaries.

An ilk of auto ads goes like this: “The XQ7 has more leg room than a Mercedes, accelerates faster than the Land Rover, and has better gas mileage than a Cadillac.” All true statements, but cherry-picked to obscure the basic truth that the XQ7 is a piece of crap that no one would ever think is better than a Mercedes, a Land Rover, or a Cadillac.

Food marketers do this, too. Sugary cereals are “high in fiber.” Ice creams have “no added sugar.” And juice-like kids’ beverages are “high in Vitamin C.” Even when true, these claims are meant to obscure the fact that they’re promoting sugary cereals, ice creams, and juice-like kids’ beverages.

But it’s never just one thing — saying something good about something isn’t the same as saying something is good.

Even outside of marketing, I encounter this reductionism not seldomly, either as an espouser of green living or as the guy who lost a lot of weight: People ask, “What’s the one thing I have to do? Whole foods? High fiber? No GMOs? Low fat? No sugar? No flour? No incandescents? No gas guzzlers? Low carb or low fat? Reuse or recycle?” Please, what’s the one thing!?

I share the impulse: I too have wanted the perfect answer, the magic potion, the inside track. But what I stumbled into learning is that usually, the right first step to take is any first step.

When I was at one with my couch, I didn’t know that any overt action toward change has at least two effects. One of them is whatever specific effect it was designed for — going for a walk will burn calories, for example. But I have found that once I take an action, it changes me, even if only slightly. The next action no longer seems as great a leap, and directions I never would have considered become obvious successors.

For example, six years ago, not only was I not a gardener, I was puzzled by the enthusiasm that gardeners seemed to have. Now, I just completed my fourth year in a cooperative community garden in my town. That’s a substantial change, but part of what I’m illustrating is that growing some of my family’s food wasn’t even on my radar, never mind my list of goals.

But in 2007, I moved off the sidelines of the sustainability movement, concerned about climate change and wanting to act more like I talked. We bought a Prius, switched over to compact fluorescents, and added insulation to our 1938 bungalow. Obvious stuff, maybe even simplistic. But no way did I see those paths leading into a cooperative community garden.

Now, the connections are obvious: Industrial agriculture is a major contributor to greenhouse gases in several ways. It exists because, in (small) part, because I buy what it produces. Buying locally and/or organically is better, but can have drawbacks in the details, and besides, what’s more local than around the corner? What’s connects me more to the food I eat than coaxing it out of the earth myself?

Have I solved the climate crisis? No. Am I the perfect guardian of my corner of the earth? No. But am I more toward the solution than the problem? I believe so. Am I influencing the future? Well, my son is going to know that food comes from soil, not cellophane.

That is change, and who knows where it will lead.

Author and wellness innovator Michael Prager helps smart companies
make investments in employee wellbeing that pay off in corporate success.
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