OK

Now is exactly the right time to declare independence from what is harmful, yet somehow accepted in our world.  There are so many to choose from.  If you've got a declaration to share, please comment or better still post a diary today or in the near future - how are you declaring independence?

Please stop by to read, comment, and of course rec these diaries related to the theme of declaring independence, coming up today from DK-Greenroots and Climate SOS:

3 PM PT: Citisven provides an inventive counterpoint  in a must-read declaration of INTERdependence.

4 PM PT: Boatsie declares independence from learned helplessness, in an epic diaryabout the world community all sharing the same bathtub.

5 PM PT: Warrens declares his independence from climate despair, showcasing some great entries from his letter-a-day climate writing campaign

I hope you will add your declaration, too.

My topic today is about a particular factor that causes many people to accept wasteful and ultimately unhealthy practices to go on, and on, with the appearance of consent from everyone involved.  That factor is the Abilene Syndrome.

When a group of people all agree to something they don't want, each believing they are pleasing the others in the group, that's the Abilene Syndrome.  The term was coined by management expert and author Jerry Harvey.  

Here's the back story of this circular firing squad for our reasoning power:

On a hot summer day, the family piled into a car without air conditioning and drove too many miles to Abilene to try a new diner. The heat was oppressive; the food was lousy. But no one dared to speak in those terms until later that night back home. Finally, the matriarch of the family broke the silence by complaining about the food. Then everyone chimed in with their complaint – the car was hot, it was stupid to try an unknown restaurant. It turns out that no one wanted to go in the first place, but no one said so when it mattered. Eventually, they all blamed the father for suggesting the drive.

To Harvey, whenever a group is about to do the wrong thing, despite knowing it’s the wrong thing, it is a group “on the road to Abilene.”

Bust Out!
The Abilene Syndrome rules our social existence to a degree that is difficult to grasp until we take a very hard look at the gap between what we think and what we agree to, each and every day.  The example above is excerpted from an article about why people accept workplace bullying, even knowing that it's wrong.  The gap between the "facts" accepted into the Overton Window of any given moment and the facts of actual reality is another application of the Abilene Syndrome.

It's such a pervasive phenomenon that to get anywhere, I'll narrow down to just one little slice of the effect, and how it harms our environment and our future.

The one little slice is about unneeded consumption.  Day in and day out, we all agree to engage in rituals of consumption because we believe it's what others expect, even knowing that we can't afford it, or that it's a bad choice.  

Evolutionary Precursor of the Sports Car
Of course, there are many primary drivers of unneeded consumption, starting with the aggressive promotion by the purveyors of the stuff, pushing every psychological button available to create the appearance of need.  There is the cultural adulation of those who waste the most, because that waste demonstrates that the person has so many resources that the expenditure won't be missed.

It's ironic how each of us often accepts and amplifies those signals, by mutually reflecting common assumptions about consumption at each other.

A basic and deeply wired example is about jewelry for special occasions such as a wedding or engagement.  I remember this well from 17 years ago.  I had to get my bride not one gold ring but two, one with diamonds, and she had to be delighted to receive them.  It wasn't even something that we questioned, despite the effort of saving over a period of months just for these things.

But a few years later, a funny thing happened.  For some notable anniversary, I suggested that I should get her some further piece of jewelry, again featuring gold and diamonds.  I'm sure I wanted to convey my love - but looking back, I cringe at my lack of imagination.  I actually went so far as to get the item and present it to my beautiful wife.

Black Hole for Good Decisions
To her enduring credit, after she got out her reading glasses to peer at the tiny diamonds, she pointed out that for the price, she would really like to have something we could use, in our actual lives, instead.  Back it went.

At that time, I was not even thinking about the true price of gold and diamonds.

Especially after I heard about the Abilene Syndrome, I have worked to only engage in consumption that I actively want to do.  And the joke is: I'm not actually giving up anything I want.  Just things that I don't.  And that's liberating.

For instance, I used to travel for work.  A lot.  After each work day, the consultants would all get together for the Big Consultant Dinner.  I came to loathe this ritual.  On the surface, a great thing - big dinner on the customer's nickel.  Reality: extra hours sitting around, eating and drinking too much, and talking about work instead of having a sandwich and a walk in the park or a visit to the rock climbing gym.  What a great moment when I gave myself permission to forget the dinner and do what I wanted to do.  And, it liberated the others, who then saw that they were not bound to repeat the same thing every single night of every trip.

Easy Pickings
Freeing yourself from the syndrome is a key part of protecting our environment and our future.  Beyond saving yourself the expense and aggravation of silently accepting expenditures that don't help you, this freedom is literally the absolutely lowest hanging fruit of green living.  Try this first and score some quick wins, to help you prepare to take on the tougher choices that will soon be facing all of us.

To break through the Abilene Syndrome, it simply requires for someone (that's you!) to ask:

Why?

Here’s a great way to start.  Consider the consumer rituals that you currently do somewhat regularly, whether with friends, family, or co-workers.  From those, identify one activity that you dislike the most.  It’s the one that, whether you have realized it until now or not, you have only done either to please others or to not fail some social test.  The odds are that others are participating mostly in order to not disappoint you!

What Matters Most
Then – declare your independence.  It is the perfect season for it.  Calmly explain, if an explanation is needed, that this is not for you anymore, and you would rather do something else.  Like, say, go for a walk or a bike ride, or sit by the seashore.  Or write a letter to a friend.

Sometimes you’ll get widespread sighs of relief, a quiet mutual joy.  All these years, they have been afraid to say just how much they dreaded it.  So many times, driving to Abilene because each thought the other wanted to go there.  Now you’re a hero too.  There’s some peacock feathers for you!

Any time you think that you don't have a choice, you actually do.

Any time you think you have to do something that's wrong, you don't.



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