Better Messaging for Environmentalism

Sorry about the lack of updates- I’m TAing this Fall, and that’s kind of sucked up a lot of time.

Anyhow, today I’m going to discuss something that’s been on my mind for a while- namely, how environmental and sustainability advocates might be able improve their messaging and communication. This is trickier than it seems- it became apparent to me, that,  a lot of cases, this isn’t just a matter of rephrasing what’s been said before, it’s outright re-conceptualizing it. So, without further ado, let’s get started.

Rates of change may be more important than change itself.  This is something that I’m surprised isn’t brought up more often, especially in regards to climate change.  After all, the problem isn’t that climate is changing- that does happen from time to time throughout geologic history- it’s that it’s changing at an incredibly fast rate and amplitude compared to past norms.  To put it another way, if we were potentially seeing a 5-7 C degree change over 100,000 years, we wouldn’t care- and probably wouldn’t even notice.  It would be too gradual.  But when you compress that change into a 100 or 200 year period- which is what we are currently on track to get, if we continue business as usual- then suddenly things get a lot scarier.  Another example- one that is mentioned more often- is species extinction: there is an established background extinction rate, and in some respects, it is normal for species to go extinct.  However, the current extinction rate is over 1000 times normal.  That’s a problem.

Emphasize that solutions already exist.  We’ve got most of what we need to fix a lot of these problems- both technologically and from a policy point of view- it’s just a matter of having the political will to enact them. I know this isn’t necessarily too popular amongst dark greens, since some of them are after more radical change than what is currently offered, but given the magnitude of the crises we are facing, I think a little pragmatism may be in order (and, in any case, if you’re looking for that sort of radical change, remember: baby steps.  If such incrementalism frustrates you and you long for revolution, keep in mind Abiodun Oyewole’s sound advice- “Speak not of revolution until you are ready to eat rats to survive.”)

Be inclusive of solutions.  By the same token, don’t exclude a potential solution because it doesn’t match your One True Fix (or Fixes).  There is generally some disdain, for example, for “techno-fixes”, out of concern that they won’t address whatever underlying social or political injustice that’s causing the problem.  While there is definitely some merit to this idea, it’s important to remember that, with the exception of Cornucopians (who, to be fair, I believe most of this type of argument is directed against), no one is arguing that only techno-fixes will solve these problems.  We will need every type of “fix”- social, technological, cultural, policy, legal, you name it. This doesn’t mean you should accept a solution carte blanche (some are obviously going to be more realistic, and more effective, than others), but do keep an open mind.

Emphasize newness.  Americans are a funny bunch- we tend to be more conservative than most other Western nations, but, at the same time, we are extremely neophilic.  This is something that I think ought to be leveraged more often.  Cleantech is, in many ways, a very new field of technology, as is sustainability in general.  Our legacy systems, on the other hand, are very old- much older than most people realize.  If I were to run a campaign, for example, I would make an effort to point out that while medicine, civil rights, transportation, and scientific theory have all progressed by leaps and bounds since the Victorian era, our energy systems, for the most part haven’t*- we’re still burning coal to run steam turbines! Introduce this the right way, and I think it could lead to a lot of enthusiasm about making our world more sustainable.

Partially reframe the causes of pollution.  Generally in environmentalism rhetoric, greed and shortsightedness are often labeled as some of the root causes of environmental degradation (the more political activists extend this to condemn capitalism and/or globalization in general, but I digress).  However, I think, in doing so, they have missed another source- pure, simple, laziness.  I would argue that many environmental disasters were not caused so much wanting to make more money, but more by the simple desire to complete a task with as little effort expended as possible.  No one (well, no one sane) says to themselves, bwahahaha, I’m going to dump these toxic chemicals in the river and ruin everything- more likely, it’s more along the lines of, aw, geez, I really don’t want to have to haul this stuff all the way to the processing plant, I just want to get home for today, why not just dump it here and let someone else worry about it.   Similarly, I think some of the resistance against new regulations stems from this as well- no one wants more hoops to jump through or paperwork to fill out, even if it ultimately prevents a lot of harm.

This brings up another paradox, similar to the one discussed above concerning newness- Americans, stereotypically, are envisioned as being lazy, but at the same time, we culturally abhor laziness, and prize work ethic.  This cultural phenomenon can be used, I think, to make environmentalism resonate more with the average citizen.  Polluters can be castigated for not just being greedy, but for being lazy and slothful as well.  On a similar note, complaints that sustainability is too hard can be dismissed with a simple appeal to Americans’ cultural self-image of their hard-working nature- so what if it’s hard? Winning WWII was hard.  Putting men on the moon was hard.  Building the internet was hard.  Eradicating smallpox and decoding the human genome both were hard.  Since when does hard work keep Americans from doing something? This country was founded (so we like to believe) on hard work.

Emphasize that anyone and everyone can be part of the solution(s).  This is my favorite, and gave rise to my personal slogan for environmentalism and sustainability- “If you’ve ever wanted to the save the world, do we have some good news for you.”  This is an arena in which anyone can make a difference, and just about everyone will ultimately need to.  Engagement can be used to foster a real, authentic sense of empowerment and personal significance- something a lot of people long for.  The one tricky thing with this tactic is that it can be easy for it to degenerate into using minor lifestyle changes to rationalize the status quo- hey, I already recycle, I’m not going to worry about the other stuff.  But I think if we couple this to the “hard work” image above, it may turn out to be very useful to getting people engaged and involved.

A short note on rallies.  This summer I attended one of the Summer Heat rallies in Washington, D.C.  While it was fun, and seeing Bill McKibben speak was pretty cool, it did strike me that, in a lot of ways, this style of protest hasn’t really changed much since the ’60s, and while I’m sure it was effective in the ’60s (in part because it was more-or-less unprecedented at that time), much of its impact has been lost with time and gaining familiarity.  Thus, I humbly offer my suggestions to make rallies more relevant to today’s audience:

1. Think less folk music, more Daft Punk.

2. No drums, unless they’re part of a musical ensemble.  Random drumming is loud, annoying, and ultimately counterproductive (at the Summer Heat rally, I couldn’t hear some of the speakers because the guy next to me was wailing on a handdrum every time a speaker made a point he a greed with).

3. No call and response unless you’re Martin Luther King, Jr. (And you’re not, so don’t).


*One of these days, if I ever get the nerve to do it, I’d like to team up with the Yes Men, and go into the lobby of one of the major fossil fuel companies (or their lobbying associations) in an  elaborate Victorian getup, and demand my shipment of coal. “My God, man, it’s been nearly a fortnight and a half since the promised date of delivery!  If you keep this up, I’ll have to close the factory, and then where will the children work?!”


About tessarion

Astrobiologist, environmentalist, trans lesbian, and would-be writer.
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