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How Not to Convince Someone to Go Green

How Not to Convince Someone to Go Green

I find myself torn these days about how best to approach all of the daunting environmental issues of our time.  If I keep talking about the problems, people tend to get that glazed-over look in their eyes, as if they can’t handle all of the negativity coming their way, and indeed, it’s overwhelming.  Most people simply want to tune out or bury their heads in the sand and shooting facts at them can create animosity or defensiveness — they think I’m a know-it-all who’s preaching or talking down at them.  That reaction completely negates the whole point!  Sometimes I’m lucky, however, and I catch the attention of a friend, family member or stranger for a few brief minutes in order to engage them about climate change, the loss of species or energy policy, but it’s often fleeting and the conversation inevitably resumes to “how’s the weather?”  Ironic.

I recently found solace in this predicament through a TEDx Cibeles talk by University of Kansas professor, Simran Sethi.  In her talk (which I highly recommend you watch below), Simran spends 30 minutes not discussing the dire facts about climate change, but instead chooses to tell her story in an effort to reach people in a different, less threatening way.  Her story, in fact, is one many of us can relate to, on both sides of the environmental debate.

Simran, a self-proclaimed environmentalist who spent a good deal of her life in New York City, suddenly found herself living and working in Kansas, a state that could be described as the polar opposite of the liberal-minded, leftist-leaning northeast. Challenged by her newfound right-leaning colleagues and neighbors, Simran tells the story of a man who she later befriends, a person who she initially never thought she’d associate with, who hunts, drives a “gun-toting pick-up truck” and who doesn’t consider himself an environmentalist.  Simran illustrates how this man, a man who spends 2.5 hours in the woods patiently waiting to kill a turkey, a man who doesn’t believe in climate change and a man who prioritizes saving money over saving the Earth, is in many respects just like her.  In fact, this individual ends up being one of her greatest teachers.

Juxtaposed to this person, Simran depicts her weekly trip to the local co-op market where she drives 20 minutes one way to purchase a free-range turkey to cook for dinner and asks: really, what is the difference between me and him? Is it better to be disassociated from your food source and consider yourself an environmentalist, or to hunt for your own food and not consider yourself eco-minded?  It’s a paradox that permeates a great deal of society today.

Simran’s argument is not one of literal politics, per say, although she does touch on the issue, but more one of engagement and storytelling and of reaching across social, economic and cultural boundaries and biases to learn from each other in order to find common ground.  And she makes a good point: on both sides of the coin we’re wasting valuable time bickering about who’s “right” and who’s “wrong, who’s “progressive” and who’s “ignorant.” Shouldn’t we instead be trying to mutually reach over party lines, both in Washington, DC and at home, in order to relate to each other on areas we all can agree to actually get things done?

Sure, it’s not easy and Simran comments in her video that there are some core issues where she simply does not agree with her friend, but in the end, she’s right — we’ll get absolutely nowhere without trying to establish broader commonality and there are much bigger issues at stake then our individual pride.  So, yes, facts are important and necessary and they’re becoming increasingly so as climate change comes into full view, but let’s also remember to humanize environmental issues and focus on the shared stories, images and personal experiences so that we can relate to each other on a fundamental level we all can understand.

Related Stories:

Climate Change Denier’s Own Study Changes His Mind

Fostering Sustainable Behavior: Helping People Go Green

More and More of the Earth is Getting Hotter and Hotter

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Photo Credit: TEDxAmsterdam

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7:01AM PDT on Aug 15, 2012


6:16AM PDT on Aug 15, 2012

What a wonderful article addressing that pink elephant in the room! Thank you! We all suffer from a conflict within somewhere...I personally finally found a way to overcome, or at least find inner peace and balance, through adopting the steps shared in Ecopsychology, or Ecotherapy education. Love it! That field could most certainly learn from your article, however, too, because all Environmental orgs/schools are missing this key issue - stop the negativity! I hope to do so through my art and writing...we shall see:)

3:50AM PDT on Aug 15, 2012


5:22AM PDT on Aug 14, 2012

thanks for the article, a LOT of education is still needed....

4:37AM PDT on Aug 14, 2012

interesting points

8:14PM PDT on Aug 13, 2012

advice that might even lead to better results in some comment threads on Care2

7:46PM PDT on Aug 13, 2012

a lot of work,committment n awareness is needed

1:51PM PDT on Aug 13, 2012

hm, with me, if someone is so stubborn they won't consider it on their own and researching on their own, I'm not going to waste my time on them..I know it's not nice, blah blah but some people don't change

11:51AM PDT on Aug 13, 2012

Another great way to avoid sounding like you're preaching environmental issues is to point people in the direction of Michael Pollan, especially his "in defence of food". Its a humble read that doesn't force you to go full tilt in the opposite direction, just makes you a more concious eater.

11:31AM PDT on Aug 13, 2012

This is why carbon tax can be so effective (and a lot of people don't agree, including, surprisingly, some environmentalists and environmental conscious people), because it forces the individual to change their habits, initially by simply trying to avoid paying or benifiting from the tax, and leads them to rethink their spendings and purchases to more economical and ecological means. Especially relevant for modern farming processes, which are some of the biggest polluters in the world.

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