Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Barriers to Behavior
distributed 1/10/03 - ©2003

A simple piece of hardware is blocking a church's dedicated efforts to be energy efficient.

The congregation that donates office space to Eco-Justice Ministries takes its "Whole Earth" commitments very seriously, both theologically and practically.

Over a period of several years, they've installed energy efficient lighting, increased the attic insulation, put new storm windows on the very drafty stained glass in the sanctuary, and tightened up the weather stripping. Within the last year, they spent $60,000 to install a sophisticated new boiler that will save lots of fuel during the heating season. (In the process, they carefully researched solar heating systems, too, and made sure that solar can be connected to the new boiler.)

But many days this winter, a flood of frigid winter air has poured into my office. The icy blast comes from the main door to the education wing -- which is propped wide open -- flows down a hallway, and heads directly for my desk chair. That door gets propped open because nobody has figured out a good way to hang a 29 cent wrench beside the door.

The glass door to the education wing has a "panic bar" on it. For those going out, the door can never be locked. It is a practical safety feature, mandated by building codes.

The problem arises for those coming into the building. Dozens of people have a key to the door and can easily let themselves in. But the outside key only opens the door; it can't unlock the door for those who are coming along later.

To really unlock the door, that little hex wrench has to be used to clamp down the panic bar. Wrenches haven't been passed out with the door keys. They don't fit well on key chains, and the different process for unlocking the panic bar is confusing to some.

And so it happens that the door is often propped open for a meeting, or when the food bank volunteers are carting groceries in and out of the building. During the winter, that means that the heat runs out, and the cold pours in. And all of those good intentions about energy conservation literally go right out the door.

One of these days, we'll figure out how to put a little hex wrench on a long chain so that the many groups who use the building can deal with the panic bar. But we have to find a way to make the arrangement easy to use, and at the same time keep the Sunday School kids from playing with it, or choking themselves on the chain.

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The quirks of our church door represent a problem that many of us encounter.

Our good intentions and careful preparations fall apart when we encounter some simple roadblock. It only takes one barrier to halt or significantly diminish a worthwhile project.

In the case of our church door, the negative effects are relatively minor. The good work that has been done in so many areas of energy conservation still are making a real difference, in spite of the occasional icy draft.

But often, simple barriers -- both real and perceived -- keep anything from happening at all.

  • Over the last several years, the Interfaith Climate Change Campaign has actively encouraged people of faith to use compact fluorescent light bulbs, which use only a fraction of the electricity of incandescent bulbs. A great idea! But those screw-in fluorescents cost much more to buy (even though they'll save money over the life of the bulb), don't fit well in all fixtures, come in a bewildering array of shapes and wattages, and don't work with dimmers. For many people, the cost, confusion and inconvenience are real barriers to taking an environmentally responsible action.

  • Activists (left, right and center) constantly urge us to contact our elected representatives. But many people are intimidated at the thought of talking to such "important people," feel uninformed on the legislative details, or simply don't know who to call. Fear and uncertainty keep many people from active participation in democracy.

  • As I wrote a couple of months ago, the social, psychological and emotional relationships that we have with our cars are often powerful barriers that keep people from choosing fuel efficient vehicles. Maybe Jesus would drive a Prius, but millions of US drivers find compelling reasons not to make that choice.
The mission statement of Eco-Justice Ministries speaks of our work in helping churches "develop ministries that are faithful, relevant and effective in working toward social justice and environmental sustainability." Recognizing the barriers that keep people and institutions from doing good is an important part of what it takes to be effective.

In our work to care for all of God's creation, it is not enough to address the clear benefits of eco-justice actions. It is also important to pay attention to all of the factors that might keep people from acting on helpful strategies. It is only when we have recognized those barriers that we can begin to overcome them.

RESOURCE NOTE: I refer often to a book that details how to uncover the barriers that prevent people from engaging in sustainable behaviors, and provides a set of tools that help to foster behavioral change. Ask your local independent bookseller about Fostering Sustainable Behavior: An introduction to community-based social marketing (ISBN 0-86571-406-1).


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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Eco-Justice Ministries ended all programming on July 31, 2020. This site is an archive of writings and resources.
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