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Towards a new environmentalist rhetoric

Keystone XL march on Washington - March, 2014
Keystone XL march on Washington - March, 2014
Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Last month, the Pew Research Center released a slew of polling data on the so-called “Millenial” generation.*Among the findings: only 32 percent of Millenials self-identify as “environmentalists.”

(*Defined as anyone born after 1980.)

Nonetheless, as Samantha Larson wrote in a post for Grist, “rejecting a label isn’t necessarily rejecting the cause.” To wit, Millenials are observed to engage in a variety of activities that one might label “green” – e.g. relying on public transit, biking or car-sharing rather than auto-ownership; eating less meat and spending more on local/organic food; and living in shared housing. With the result that Millenials may be more efficient users of natural resources.

Taking a broader view, polling data suggest that Americans value “environmental protection” in the abstract – but regard it as a lower priority than other policy goals. According to a post by Ruy Teixeira of the Center for American Progress, 62 percent of respondents answered that environmental protection was more important than economic growth (in the event of a conflict between the two).

Meanwhile, polling conducted by Pew in 2013 found that 52 percent of Americans named environmental protection as a “top priority” – placing it in the middle-of-the-pack in a list headed by improving the economy, adding jobs, and reducing the federal deficit. Similarly, an admittedly-dated 2009 post by Nate Silver indicated that Americans, while not feeling personally threatened by the impacts of climate change, felt that the impacts of climate change would nonetheless have a large impact on more remote considerations. The assumption was that climate change would be:

“more impactful on their families than themselves; more impactful on their communities than their families; more impactful on their country than their communities; more impactful than [sic] other counties than on the United States; more impactful on future generations than the present one, and finally, more impactful on plants and animals than on humans.”

Alternatively, if the reader prefers anecdotal evidence, consider the case of Rex Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobil. As noted in this Eve Andrews Grist piece, Tillerson has truculently opposed the construction of “fracking” infrastructure near his Texas ranch – all the while fervently supporting the fracking operations of the company he runs. We are all environmentalists where our own backyard is concerned.

What to make of these threads? A thesis: Americans generally favor a clean, healthy environment – while “environmentalism” itself has become a damaged “brand,” to use the parlance of our times. Perhaps, then, environmentalism requires a new rhetoric – a new means to reach a largely-sympathetic audience, spurring them to a greater level of identification with the cause.

The paradigmatic environmental appeal (at least based on supposition in the absence of rigorous research) is apparently more geared towards the true believer than in changing minds. Consider the use of phrases such as “big oil,” “big coal,” “frankenfoods,” etc. Or, consider the use of compelling imagery from natural disasters, oil spills, and industrial accidents. Such appeals are geared to provoke an emotional, visceral response. Such an approach may well succeed to inspire action from supporters, but seems to this observer less likely to convince the unconvinced.*

(*In a similar vein, there is Bill McKibben’s advocacy naming the moloch of climate change – a courageous gambit, but more likely to stir primarily the like-minded than the adversary.)

On the other hand, green marketing guru David Fenton posits that environmentalist communications suffer from a love of complexity – e.g. they are too nuanced to cut through a medium that values simplicity. And also: environmental messaging is afraid of repetition, another supposedly vital component to the successful marketing of ideas. Not to mention the frequent deployment of phrases such as “nature,” “planet,” and “environment.”

Your correspondent is, on a personal level, skeptical of much corporate message-speak and modern “branding” fads.* Nonetheless, it is indeed possible that the communication sage knows a thing or two about human psychology that could lead to a more effective environmentalist rhetoric.

(*On a meta-level, this article itself surely fails on many of the same environmental “messaging” grounds criticized throughout said article.)

It may be that – in a culture that places an inordinate value on individualism – what is needed is an approach that emphasizes the role of the individual within the environment. For we are all, in the final analysis, dependent on the natural environment for our continued existence. Similarly, there is real economic value to be gained from a well-functioning environment – and externalized costs from pollution that go largely unseen. Which costs may be felt on the individual level.

Rather than fixating solely on the environment as an idealized abstraction, a new rhetoric would re-emphasize the unique place of humanity – including the individual human – within natural systems. Sustainability is more than just an improvement in environmental quality – it also contemplates improvement in human welfare.

A simple – and likely unoriginal – solution to environmental rhetoric thus presents itself: demonstrate that there is in truth no “choice” between environmental and economic well-being. The latter requires the former to be even theoretically possible. From such an understanding flows the conclusion that the environmental ethic is not just an end in itself, but also a means to more efficient economic outcomes – and a more sustainable future. Or something along those lines, using more focus group-friendly, poll-tested phraseology.

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