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6/8/09 "I used to take showers every day"

At the workshop I attended a couple weeks ago, we spent some time talking about how people change behaviors. To kick off the discussion, the moderator asked for examples of changes people had made in their lives. "I quit smoking" got big nods. I got a round of laughs for my contribution: "I used to take showers every day."

I was trying to make a point about how some changes are driven by intrinsic factors and other by extrinsic, but I think in the general hilarity, it was overlooked. Which is fine, but it's worth thinking about.

We're trying to change attitudes and behaviors here in Morocco, all the time. "Change agent" is one of my favorite PCV definitions.

Health Volunteers are trying to get people to wash their hands, brush their teeth, and dispose of medical waste safely. (Believe it or not, syringes are routinely reused.)

Small Business Development Volunteers are trying to encourage better business practices, whether it's designing products more likely to appeal to tourists, finding better markets, etc.

Youth Development Volunteers want young people to use their free time productively. They teach English, discuss gender roles, talk about environmental and health issues, and generally support the work of the rest of us, one young-person-attitude at at time.

We Environment Volunteers are trying to build an ethos of Environmentalism. Resources are finite and need to be protected / Just because it's always been there doesn't mean it always will / Overgrazing destroys ecosystems / Trees create clean air and are generally good things / Peeing in a river is bad / and a million other things.

But trying to change attitudes is hard. Trying to change actions that result from attitudes is even harder. Think about how much it has taken to create a culture of environmental protection in the US, where we've been working at it since Silent Spring. Some people still don't even separate their trash, let alone monitor their carbon footprint or support national parks.

But externally-forced changes - like me switching from daily showers to weekly ones - have their own challenges. We could raise the price of gas to 10 dollars a gallon. But would people actually drive less? When it was over $4, driving habits barely changed; folks cut back elsewhere to maintain their car dependence. We could ban incandescent bulbs to force a switch to CFLs...but would the net gain in energy savings be enough to survive the backlash of grumpy people who don't like the white light or the fact that Big Brother is bossing them around again?

It's worth remembering that even dramatic changes take time to adjust to. When I arrived in Morocco, I imagined all sorts of effort I'd be willing to go to in order to maintain something approximating my usual hygiene regimen. And even when I suspected that I'd go a few days between showers, I *never* thought that I'd *admit* it. But times change. After a year, I neither mind the wait nor find it odd enough to want to hide it. (The American Oh, what will people think?!?! mentality fades as quickly as a California girl's tan under the layers of Moroccan clothing.)

The other adjustments I don't even notice until something brings them to my attention. Like when I squeal with joy over *toast* or *root beer*...but I don't miss them when I don't have them.

When I first set up my apartment, I took a trip to Marjane (the Moroccan version of Target or Kmart or Macy's or something) and stocked up on American foods and spices and cookwares, and imagined that I'd take Marjane trips every three months or every time I visited a big city, whichever happened more.

I haven't been to a Marjane since ... I can't even remember the last time. Oh, wait, it was March. But I do remember that when I was there, I was mostly buying things for other people. As a friend pointed out, when we discussed this, "You learn to do without a lot of stuff. And it's OK." I was saying something like, "Shouldn't I miss these things? Isn't it ... odd ... that I don't?" But she's right. It's OK.

Some friends, especially those who live less than 9 hours from one, visit Marjane every week or two. And I'm happy for them - happy that it makes them happy - but I don't envy them.

I started to say "I'm perfectly content with my life," but that might be overstating things. But I am perfectly content with my material goods. It's fun to get care packages, and I celebrate the new arrivals of books and chocolate and oatmeal and mac&cheese enthusiastically...but mostly because of the generosity behind the gift, more than the thing itself.

And it's OK.

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