Year for the Planet Week 5: What to Do When You Fall Off the Sustainability Wagon

Before you can fix the world, you have to fix yourself. Year for a Planet is a personal challenge to be a better human for the planet for a whole year. This year, 2017, is where I deal with my food choices.

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So this week I ask, What to do when you fall off the sustainability wagon?

Duh, you get back on. But I’m getting ahead of myself here.

I know it sounds like I’ve been really good for the past month. Tofu! Overnight oats! Smoothies! No meat! I even succeeded in having my first completely plastic-free grocery day, which is quite a feat in plastic-loving Southeast Asia.

But alas, there are slip-ups, and one of my rules is to document not just the times I’ve succeeded in eating sustainably, but also the times when I failed. More importantly, I want to write about why I failed and how I got back up afterwards.

Here are the times I bailed on this lifestyle change since January 1st:

1. I was juggling multiple grant deadlines and, feeling lightheaded, I went into the kitchen, saw two boxes of strawberry-flavored Pepperos, and devoured them both.
2. I had to pick up one of my more frighteningly fierce aunts on my Chinese side who visited from New York. We were stuck in traffic for two hours. Later that night I thought, screw it, and I scarfed three cheese rolls in a row.
3. I was entering an art competition with a deadline closing in and their online submission system was down. I stress-nibbled my way to eat a third of a box of Belgian chocolates.

You can see why these weren’t the best choices for eating for the planet. They were processed, full of sugar, was terrible for my health, to say nothing for the artificial flavors, unnecessary over-packaging, and carbon footprint. The thing was, I knew they were bad choices, but I did them anyway. I thought, what the heck, I had a long day and I deserved it.

Law vs advocacy

Naturally I never thought that this challenge this was going to be easy. I live in a system that goes against sustainable living. Refusing a plastic bag rewards me with strange looks. There are countries where sustainable lifestyles are not just the normal but the law. Right now, I’m in the Philippines and it is labeled an “advocacy” because it is an irregular choice. The odds are, frankly, against me. So I’m trying to be practice resilience by not beating myself up over some slip-ups that, at those times, seemed perfectly understandable in my stressed states, but are things I deeply regretted later.

Stress. I realized that this is the main trigger for me. It’s anxiety that makes me lose focus and forget the values I committed to. It’s one thing to have lots of time to plan your meals, but it’s another when there are these unforeseen circumstances. It can creep up in both your personal and professional lives. The only solution was to plan better.

Someone else’s fault but mine

In two decades of taekwondo, I had lots of times when I lost commitment to the sport. It usually happens during the first few years—these are the times that are ripe for attrition. It’s like the New Year’s resolution you throw away in March, which I was sometimes afraid this Year for the Planet challenge was going to be.

Many years ago, I distinctly remember being the wimpiest one in my class. Most of the time, I realized I blamed other things aside from myself.  When I fell, I cried. The coach sucked, the facilities weren’t great, the uniforms were uncomfortable, my classmates were mean. It was always someone else’s fault.

“Keep at it”

Once, I had a coach from Brazil who told me to just “keep at it” and come to class every day. I think he got annoyed by all my excuses. This was the guy who lost to Steven Lopez (world champion several times over) by one point and when that happens to you, you never let your students hear the end of it.

And so I did. “Keep at it”, I mean. And with the choice of getting back into the game, I decided to forget the previous day of sulking and just got on with it. The more I kept going, the stronger and better I became, and I stopped making excuses and even hated it when I couldn’t got to training. The more progress I made, the more ridiculous the excuses of my younger self became.

When I told myself to just do better, these outside factors decreased in importance until they stopped mattering altogether. The stronger your mind gets, the easier it is to step away from temptations and excuses because eventually you stop seeing them.

It’s the mindset I’m going with, so to eat better, I learned how to make more delicious meals with the food I can buy. Protein balls, strawberry soy milkshakes, matcha chocolate cups, and all of these less-than-5-ingredient meals that I used to dismiss because they felt so hipster. But they’re better for the planet, easy to make, and I don’t feel worse after eating them. These are now in my in-case-of-emergency food stash. Now I feel like I’m in better control of my day despite stressful situations. The more I say yes to these little changes, the easier it is to say no to my former choices.

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