Back in my undergrad days, as an Environmental Science major concentrating in water resources, I took a class entitled Problems With Polluted Aquatic Environments. From the course title, you’ve probably figured out the gist -- essentially chemistry, physics, and biology as they relate to really messed-up water bodies. The problems included the obvious; brown algae running amok and not playing nice with the rest of the critters in the lake, non-respiring sideways-floating fish, drinking water that tastes vaguely like benzene, etc. Problems indeed, and serious at that.
But there was also a problem with the way the message was delivered. The professor, for the sake of this article let’s call her Chicken Little, apparently had three colors to choose from in her wardrobe - black, obsidian, and onyx. Matching her fashion sense, the lesson was constantly one of doom and gloom. Everything was ruined; we were headed over the falls in a barrel. If the course syllabus had a glossary, the entries would include catastrophe, collapse, decimate, irreparable, wreck. Granted, the course title was overt and I knew what was ahead -- after all, I didn’t sign up for Cute Yellow Fuzzy Ducklings and Aquatic Environments. Still, the professor’s use of hyperbole, to me, was over the top and counterproductive.
Counterproductive, because if you keep running around yelling that the sky is falling, you are going to lose your audience. Even my interest wanes while reading articles that proclaim a particular policy move to be the utter end of some corresponding environmental concern. And that’s from someone who has centered his post-secondary academics and professional career around identifying and solving environmental problems.
There are plenty of recent hyperbolic environmentalist examples in print and on social media. Without direct citations, just off the cuff, here are some of my recent favorites:
- An oil pipeline will doom the environmental quality of the midwest. Pipeline or the environment - there is no other choice!
- Every fracking proposal should be a non-starter because we’ll never be able to drink ground water again. End fracking now!
- With it’s new waiver program, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) has given a green light to polluters to foul the land. Shame, shame, NJDEP!
- Or this recent social media doozy: Hurricane Sandy was a direct result of anthropogenic climate change. Time to start picking nuts and berries again or we’re all doomed!
So if I’m cringing at these methods, noble as they may be, what then of Joe Six-Pack, Joe the Plumber, or Joe Schmoe? Heck, what about the other six-plus billion people not named Joe? How do we reach them?
To start, environmental advocacy groups, while still holding to their mission statements, need to remember that environmental concerns are not the only metric in people’s decisions making process. People fret over taxation and personal finances. People worry about jobs. People have religious and social concerns they hold close to the heart. People stress about health care. These are all competing interests to the environmental message.
Or are they? Certainly not the economic message. At least it shouldn’t be. That’s because environmental stewardship is fiscally conservative. Maintenance, whether it’s your home, car, personal health, or the environment, is always the smart long-term money move. So, maybe it’s time to tone down a notch the guilt trips and threats of impending doom. Rather, complete proper accounting by internalizing the costs of negative environmental consequences. Show, prominently, the benefits compared to the expenditure. Then, lay out your arguments with a knowing smile, not with a frenzied frown.
In other words, ease up on the fire and brimstone from the pulpit. A healthy dose of objectivity and acknowledgement of competing interests would transform the environmental message for the better. Pave the path to the green economy with opportunity. Celebrate growth, not regression. Prosperity, not perdition. That’s the environmental message I’d rather deliver... and hear. Lest we want the masses cliff jumping, screaming, head-first into shallow and rocky aquatic environments.