IT ISN’T the best of times, it isn’t the worst of times. It’s just an ordinary summer Saturday afternoon, and you are schlepping your reusable cloth shopping bags from the car into the supermarket. The big expensive feel-good supermarket with the luscious organic produce, the fair-trade coffee, the yogurt made from the milk of cows who are fully vested in cooperative bovine pension plans. The store has trained you well; bringing in the reusable bags is something you do now without thinking. Yet for some reason this afternoon, pushing your cart around, you find yourself thinking about bags, and about consumer psychology and environmentalism and peer pressure, about gasoline, about how and why people change their private practices in the interest of the public good, and about whether the value of such changes is real or mostly symbolic.
Let’s start with the bags. It took you forever to really get the hang of the reusable ones. A consumer psychologist might have identified eight different steps in the process:
1) Noticing that the store was encouraging the use of reusable cloth shopping bags. Noticing that other people were starting to use them. Fear that the people working the register disapproved of anyone who wasn’t using them.
2) Giving in and buying some.
3) Forgetting them at home. Resolving to keep them in the car.
4) Keeping them in the car, but forgetting to bring them into the market.
5) Walking out of the market in midshopping trip and going back to the car to retrieve the bags.
6) Remembering more often than not to bring them into the market.
7) Finally, remembering every time — but only when you were shopping at the Fancy Feel-Good Supermarket. Never bothering to carry the reusable bags with you into the Regular Old Supermarket — the one where you go to buy kitty litter and Jell-O. This was the hypocrisy phase of your conversion. You were only interested in keeping up with the Mother Joneses when your behavior was visible. When no one was looking, you didn’t care.
8) Realizing you did care, and bringing the bags in with you whenever you went to the Regular Old Supermarket.
When you finish your shopping on this hot Saturday afternoon, you linger near the registers. You’re wondering how persuasive other people have found this mix of peer pressure and environmental consciousness. Well, out of the 86 people who check out while you’re watching, only 34 of them (40 percent) have brought in reusable bags. You think about the markets you’ve seen in Europe, where customers pay for each store bag they use, as opposed to the Feel-Good Supermarket’s 5-cent-per-reusable-bag rebate. In America, they pay you to get with the program; in Europe they charge you if you don’t, which seems to work better.
By now you’re in counting mode. You go out to the parking lot and count the SUVs vs. the regular cars. Out of the 127 vehicles in the parking lot, 36 percent are SUVs, which on average use more gas and create more emissions than regular cars.
Having begun this line of inquiry, you drive over to the Regular Old Supermarket. The bag ratio there is more wasteful (of the 60 people at the registers, 50 have not brought in cloth bags) — but in the parking lot, only 22 percent of the vehicles are SUVs.
According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, “The car you drive [is] the most important personal climate decision.” The difference between the SUV/car ratio in the two parking lots may have more to do with economics and demographics than with environmental consciousness. And to be fair, a precise comparison would require measuring the actual fuel consumption of each individual vehicle on the lot. But if you could do that comparison, would you find that the store-bag-using car drivers at the Regular Old Supermarket have a less damaging climate impact than the cloth-bag-using SUV drivers at the Fancy Feel-Good Supermarket?
You drive home and unload your bags. There are three small city markets within blocks of your house. You resolve to start carrying your bags and walking to the neighborhood stores more often. Will this single small act be a far, far better thing than you have ever done before? It may be foolishness, it may be wisdom, but it certainly can’t hurt.
Joan Wickersham’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Her latest book is “The News From Spain: Seven Variations on a Love Story.’’