Monday, March 31, 2014

How to Be an Environmentalist without Being a Total Downer


Why don't more people care about the environment?
Why aren't more people anxiously engaged in addressing climate change?
Why are so many good smart people seemingly indifferent to the looming catastrophes?

We greenies muse about these questions now and then. And sometimes thinking about the apathy of others gets us really discouraged and stuck in a feeling of hopelessness (what's the use?). Green Bean recently shared with me an interesting article that explains that the green movement has a major PR problem, and that the solution is to never say "earth" or "planet" or "environment," to focus on people (not polar bears), to enlist celebrities, and to repeat, repeat, repeat.

Recently I've been reading Daniel Goleman's book Focus about the nature of attention, and his discussion of attention has an enlightening explanation about why are paralyzed by climate change. He gives two very compelling reasons why we are very ill-equipped to address "our slow-motion mass suicide as human systems degrade the global systems that support life on this planet."

First is the fact that we can't perceive the threat with our senses and that it seems far off.  As one expert (Dr. Larry) in the book explains, "'I have to persuade you that there's an odorless, tasteless, invisible gas that's gathering in the heavens and capturing the sun's heat because of what man does in using fossil fuels. It's a heavy lift...The dimension of time is a huge problem -- if the pace of global warming were accelerated to a few years instead of over centuries, people would pay more attention. But it's like the national debt: I'll leave it to my grandchildren--I'm sure they'll think of some solution.'"

In addition, the topic of climate change is downright depressing! And the human mind does not like to dwell on the distressing: "Emotions, remember, guide our attention. And attention glides away from the unpleasant." Who wants to think about humanity's eventual demise due to our own failure to act? Not me! Even I find myself recoiling from the thought and redirecting my attention elsewhere. Goleman explains that he used to think that complete transparency about the negative impacts of our behaviors and purchases would encourage us to find better alternatives. But, he says, "I neglected a psychological fact. Negative focus leads to discouragement and disengagement."

I found this example, from Columbia's Elke Weber, particularly enlightening: "[Y]ou can get women's attention about getting breast exams by scaring them about what might happen if they don't get examined. This tactic captures attention in the short term, but because fear is a negative feeling, people will take just enough action to change their mood for the better -- then ignore it."

As Weber explains, "'Negative emotions are poor motivators,'" and for long-term change you need sustained action and a positive message. Goleman's book touts a shift from talking about negative eco-footprints to positive eco-handprints as a better source of sustained motivation. The website handprinter draws on LCA (life cycle analysis) data to tell you the sum total of all your good habits: your handprint. The key idea being to keep making improvements until your handprint is bigger than your footprint. Using the power of social media, you can inspire others to join with you on this path.

I checked out online as soon as I read about it in Focus. It has just shy of 2,000 FB fans so I think it's safe to say that it hasn't taken off (yet, hopefully). But it's an interesting concept.

I've been thinking about my own life and how I became more engaged in green issues, what worked to get me to pay attention. And thinking about what I can learn from that to help me be more strategic in my attempts to get others' attention. But that's the topic for another post. First I want to hear from you!

Here are the questions I pose to you, super readers: 

  • How did you develop a sustained interest in green issues? 
  • How can we talk about our green concerns and choices in a way that doesn't make others' eyes glaze over? 
  • How can we talk about climate change and other environmental issues in a way that engages the unengaged?


Green Bean said...

I'm so glad that you wrote this article, Betsy! I used to always focus on the happy part of living green. How local food tastes so much better (it does!!). How much fun it is to garden or go to the farmers market (it is!). How it is so much healthier to walk or bike to a destination and makes me feel so much better. And so on.

That was in 2007. Our momentum was growing then and I really do believe that that tactic is/was the right one. However, we are now in 2014 and the news keeps getting worse with more and more people falling off the environmental bandwagon.

How do we convince people this is a better way while getting 'er done mighty quick because things are urgent. I don't know but it is an important conversation to have. Thanks for getting it going.

Betsy Escandon said...

I also would like to learn more about other countries/ cities/ governments that are doing much more in terms of policy -- why can they get it done when we can't??? I want to hear more about the successes and what works. It's true we need urgent action of the policy level, but I think the positive approach will always be more successful on the personal level. The green movement really has already gone through one heyday -- I don't think we need another one, but something much more significant and long-lasting. A whole paradigm shift for the collective conscious (no big deal!).

Connie said...

I too am at a lost as to how to inspire action. Sometimes I just try to lead by example. But really, big change can only happen by electing the right people (at all levels of government) and pressuring companies. Getting your grandmother to recycle is only a grain of sand on the beach. Great topic! I want to hear what others have to say!

Oloriel said...

This is a great article (and great blog! just found you!) and I think it's an important topic. I know for me I came to the green movement through reading about nutrition and whole foods maybe 8-9 years ago. It just felt right.

Like Green Bean I definitely focus on the happy part - I also focus on the cheap part, when it is cheap. (We cloth diaper, for example, and when I tell people about it I mention that the main reason I'm doing it is because it's cheaper than disposables!)

Cheap & happy... there's something in that, right?

ClimateMama said...

Great post Betsy! So important because there isn't one easy answer or silver bullet. Critical things we need and can do: get climate deniers out of elected office, use our $$ to support companies trying to make a difference, lead by example - small changes, by millions do add up. And, don't be afraid, it won't make the problem go away, only make it worse..

Betsy Escandon said...

Great points, ClimateMama. Individual changes are a great way to get people involved on a personal matter, but really those should just be stepping stones to what REALLY will make a difference -- changing our policies. Making sure we vote and get out of office the deniers.

Betsy Escandon said...

Connie, it looks like you a ClimateMama are on the same page -- we need to focus on our representatives.
Oloriel, I agree that focusing on the individual benefits of green changes is a good hook to get folks interested.

Christy said...

Perfect timing for me to read this. Sometimes I don't understand why more people aren't screaming from the mountain tops about what is going on.

For me personally it is about educating the next generation.

Thanks. :-)

Janine said...

Thanks for sharing! This is something I think about often.


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