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.
Photo Credit: TEDxAmsterdam