Blog Update!
For those of you not following me on Facebook, as of the Summer of 2019 I've moved to Central WA, to a tiny mountain town of less than 1,000 people.

I will be covering my exploits here in the Cascades, as I try to further reduce my impact on the environment. With the same attitude, just at a higher altitude!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The overzealous environmentalist

We all know them - they are the environmentalists who make everyone feel inadequate. The ones who push the issues so hard it turns off everyone else, even other environmentalists. They are the die-hards who set the bar so high that people don't even bother listening to what they have to say anymore because they accept no compromise and make you feel inferior to boot.

So, how does an environmentalist get their message across and educate others while at the same time seeming reasonable and open-minded? Well, for starters, leading by example is the best approach. You can lecture people all you want about any given issue, but the end result is generally raising people's hackles. Nobody likes to be attacked or criticized for their choices.

As we head into the holidays, it is likely that we'll be interacting with a lot more friends, family and co-workers and the topics of saving money and the environment are sure to come up. When they do, use it as an opportunity to educate people with some easy to digest facts and offer up what you do to mitigate your impact.

Wait for their lead to offer more information. You will find that if you throw out a few ideas or facts about a topic, people are generally interested in learning more and they get excited if they feel like they are part of the process, rather than approaching it with a series of "you shoulds" or some long-winded response.

When I'm in a mixed group, I'm oftentimes reluctant to spew too much information for fear of overwhelming people. In addition, the possible result of coming off as too stern is offense at one end and boredom at the other.

Once someone realizes that you have information about something they've heard about they are oftentimes interested in learning more. The goal is to offer the information in a non-accusative way. I find that people know a lot more than I think they do (from the news or TV), but they just don't know what to do with the information or where to go next. I've had people corner me for hours, picking my brain about various environmentally related things. People who I wouldn't in a million years expect to be interested in it.

We have a great opportunity these days, now that the door to environmental acceptance is wedged open just a little bit. If we take these opportunities as a way to hook people's interest, educate and show them easy ways to achieve some goals, then you have moved a little bit towards getting people to accept these ideas even more. However, if you come across as an overzealous environmentalist, lecturing and accusing people, they not only shut down, but it will be really difficult to budge that door open again.

I know we are all very passionate about many things, whether it be issues with energy, pollution, plastic, climate change or animal rights and the best way to get people to listen to new ideas is with an easy-going, open-minded approach that takes into consideration their ideas and values without incrimination.

How do you go about educating people on environmental issues?


Anonymous said...

Oh, it's so easy to get self-righteous. It's what humans do. But we can also question ourselves and realize that we might actually be wrong. A lot. No matter how right we think we are.

I find that the more often I realize I'm actually wrong, the better a person I become, open to others' points of views and more likely to be listened to on mine.

So I suggest being wrong a lot. It's great for you and the environment! (Or is that the codeine cough syrup talking?)

Anonymous said...

I find that I don't use words like 'climate change' or 'environmentalism' or 'peak oil' unless someone has actually shown me that they want to have a discussion about it. To be honest, I have a general policy of not talking about it at all, unless the other person wants to or it comes up in the course of conversation as I really *don't* want to perpetuate the stereotype of the overzealous, humourless environmentalist, as I think the public perception of the movement has been really damaging.

I obviously talk about my life and the things I do with friends and family, and insofar as I'm trying to convince them that it's really a sensible and fun way to do things, I try to focus on aspects of it that people are most likely to empathise with - so with my young, female friends I might say that I walk or cycle places because it keeps me fit or that plant oils are really good for your skin, and when I was talking about a talk I went to on GM to some of my parents' friends (who live in a very traditional rural area) I talked about how bad it would be for the farmers, and how it might affect them and people they know, rather than throwing around words like 'corporate control of the food system' or 'transgenes' or whatever. Or I might say, 'I can't stand flying because I hate being treated like a criminal in my own country, so we went on holiday to Derbyshire instead,' or something.

Keeping a sense of humour is also good... And feed people. Make them lots of tasty, seasonal food and point out the sound economics of eating locally and organically!

ruchi said...

All my friends and family know about my blog. I kind of leave it up to them to read ... or not.

I also use a lot of humor. And then there are just the little weird enviro-tics I have that get attention. Like when I give a waiter back the straw she's handing me.

Burbanmom said...

I'm the worst kind of environmentalist - for the most part I don't educate others (besides my blog). However, I just was appointed to a one year term on our subdivision's new environmental committee, so I guess I'm gonna have to get vocal in person now! Will take your very sage advice with me to the meetings. :-)

Anonymous said...

If I am in a bar, I tell people that a beer on tap is more environmentally friendly than one in a bottle (no bottle recycled or not, all transported in giant containers together, glasses are reused). Some people are like, "Oh yea? tell me more," and others shrug it off.

EHS Director said...

The best advice I could give came from my son's first grade teacher.

"Before you judge someone you need to worry about you. Then if you have something positive to contribute that they can learn from, say it. If you don't, be quiet, stay in line and wait for the bus..."

In all my years working in the environmental field I have near had to use idealist self-righteous viewpoints to teach environmental stewardship.

The way the message is presented is the difference.

It isn’t about me it is about 'we'.

When someone knows the message you are sending is of genuine concern for their well being it can never be taken ‘the wrong way’.

Anyone who conveys this message and offends others is ‘doing it wrong’.

We don’t need another cause, crisis or campaign we just need to care about more than just ourselves.

Many 'know' what we should do… it’s just that very few want to.

Gretchen said...

Hey Crunchy this is a great question. Especially for me, who does not really do very much eco-friendly stuff. But I'm trying.

I think, first off, some people are just going to get miffed about anything an environmentalist does, because deep down they feel guilty for not doing more (like you posted about the other day). This is just unavoidable. Those people? just don't bring the subject with them.

For others, like me, I think praising them for even small things, like recycling, will help. I know I feel overwhelmed when I hear people like you who work full time and STILL make your own soap. I stay home with my kids and don't even make my own clothes or bread! I don't know how you do it and, truthfully, I feel kinda like a failure. I love to be "homey" but I'm just not... THERE, yet. So, if I know I'm even making small strides, in an environmentalist's eyes, it will motivate me to do more and keep going.

Hope that helps or gives you some insight. Have a great thanksgiving.

Nina said...

Oh, I don't worry about freaking other people out. I never openly criticize someone for their lack of environmentalism. I usually just open with, "I just learned that..." or "did you know that certain plastics..." I also say "we" a lot as opposed to "you." I recently decided to air dry all of my clothes and excitedly told all of my friends and coworkers. It went something like this:

Me to cubicle buddy: Guess what! I just bought the most amazing drying wrack! It can hold TWO loads of laundry!!!!

Her: Oh, for what?

Me: I'm going to stop using the drier and I am SO excited. I have figured it all out!

Her: Oh yeah, I wish I had time for that.

Me: It takes no time at all for the air to dry it. You just wait till it's done...(and continued explanation)

I have the expectation that other people do want to play their part but don't necessarily know their role. I feel that way about myself as well. Others can sense my uber passion and have told me later that they now think about their day to day life completely differently. I say, let's be proactive because we have few other options-with a smile and a hurrah! More like rallying the troops than pointing fingers. And, bringing animals up always help people see the value. Who doesn't like animals?

Summer said...

I think humor can help a lot. If you come off as lighthearted and funny people are less likely to be offended when you bring up green issues.

lauren said...

My BF and I were talking to his parents last night and our $37 gas and electric bill came up. They asked how we got it so low, and we explained about our power strips and other conservation habits. It all came about quite easily because they were genuinely curious.

But,as I said to them, "We do live in California!," which makes it easier to conserve energy in the winter. They live in Indiana, so they face much colder temps.

You don't want to leave people feeling defensive about their habits.

Anonymous said...

Instead of lecturing I just do my thang and if they ask questions I'll explain why or how we're doing what we do. For example, I was out for lunch with friends and I had a plastic bag to take home our paper plates to compost, some people were not aware you could compost the plates which led us into a discussion about composting.
At our annual 4th of July party people notice the cups have names on them of people who moved away years ago because we wash out these cups and reuse them. We give family and friends a lot of edible homemade gifts. When people taste dandelion wine they may be less likely to complain about my bio- diverse yard. ;)


LeahBear said...

Crunchy (and everyone else), I think you do a wonderful job at not overwhelming people.

I am concerned about our world, and I want to become more environmentally conscious, and I read your blog and the comments for ideas. It doesn't make me feel inadequate or overwhelmed - I know you're here to support people in their efforts!

In fact, Dasha's comment about beer on tap - that has never occurred to me! I'll only be ordering beer from the tap from now on! And I love the idea of heritage turkeys, and growing your own food, etc.

Just wanted to let you know how much I really enjoy reading this blog, and all the comments, and I feel like this is more of a supportive community than an overzealous lecture hall. Thank you!

Laura said...

Ha, "enviro-tics"! I am so going to borrow that word. ;)

I find the best conversations happen when we have people over to our house. They inquire about the cloth wipes in the bathroom, they ask about the beans growing out front, they see the compost pot in the kitchen. We are by no means super advanced in our eco-ness but we do our best. I think it works best when people see the simple solutions in action, in their native environment...if you will. :D

Cave-Woman said...

It's funny you should post this, because I was thinking the same thing a few days ago and briefly touched on it ( but not half so elequently) on my blog.

It's hard to know how much info you can get out in a reasonable way that can encourage enthusiastic choice and action.

For example...I can get people excited about making their own breads (yea!), but what do I do with the Bush administration's last ditch effort to "ease" the restrictions created by the Endangered Species Act? I'm deeply concerned about this, and don't know how to communicate that---or what I can do to help protect that legislation? I've written letters to my congressmen...and I've encouraged friends to look into this...but beyond that, what can we do that is helpful, but that inspires people to help,instead of being "turned off"?

katecontinued said...

I offer a counter perspective in two words, Overton Window.
And since many don't leap at the links, here's wikipedia:

The Overton window is a concept in political theory, named after its originator, Joe Overton, former vice president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. It describes a "window" in the range of public reactions to ideas in public discourse, in a spectrum of all possible options on an issue. Overton described a method for moving that window, thereby including previously excluded ideas, while excluding previously acceptable ideas. The technique relies on people promoting ideas even less acceptable than the previous "outer fringe" ideas. That makes those old fringe ideas look less extreme, and thereby acceptable. Delivering rhetoric to define the window provides a plan of action to make more acceptable to the public some ideas by priming them with other ideas allowed to remain unacceptable, but which make the real target ideas seem more acceptable by comparison.

We always need the Über Radical, so when the more fearful want to make a change they can assure themselves that at least they aren't going THAT far out. The drawback is we may not be popular if we take on the Über Radical role. Oh, I agree that being an asshole doesn't work. Ever.

Anonymous said...

I don't remember who, but someone once said that we should be hard on ourselves and gentle on others. It's true that "actions speak louder than words." If folks see us making genuine sacrifices for the greater good, we probably won't have to say too much unless they ask. If our lifestyle is both respectful of the planet and filled with joy, the message will be louder still. Thanks for the good questions!

Wendy said...

Ya I hear you. For awhile I just stopped reading all the environmental blogs on my reader. I didn't unsubscribe, just kept hitting "mark all as read". I'm definitely a middle of the road environmentalist (if I could even be called an environmentalist at all), but honestly I've helped a lot of friends to try making a lot of environmentally friendly changes, mainly because I'm so laid back about it. We all could do better, but then again, we all can do something, anything, no matter how small, right now.

Anonymous said...

I just don't. I do not have the energy. I wish I did. I really admire you, and Beth, and Sharon, and the proud freaks I know in my real life...but the "normal" people think I'm such a freak, I'm irrelevant to their life choices.

This always bums me out around the holidays because I have no power to make changes in any of these poeple's lives. My parents live in an RV. My not-in-laws live in a house so big, their DOG has a bathroom. They all think I'm a freak anyway, so I just keep my mouth shut.

Allie said...

I really don't. When people ask me if my frugal/environmentally-sound ways are due to some sort of hippie conservationist stuff (I will acknowledge I have hippie tendencies, and dress in a way that exacerbates that perception), I will usually explain my primary reason being frugality (as mentioned previously in another comment), but then I will outline the ecological benefits to all the stuff I do.

I know most people really are starting to care about the environment, so I do like to include all the myriad ways frugality is very beneficial to the planet.

Unless asked, however, I say nothing (either about the frugality or the environment).

Oh, but I do tend to prattle on about my joys in food. Sometimes sustainability comes up in that context.

Farmer's Daughter said...

Well........ as an environmental educator...... I think it's all about the role model thing. I also have the bonus of having a captive audience that's interested (since they signed up for the course) and thinks they can save the world (cause they're teenagers). So, that said, we discuss the problems (like fossil fuels) and then when they have a full understanding of the problem, we talk about the solutions (conservation, alternative energies, etc.). But, I also act as a role model for them. I can talk about the perils of plastic all I want, but if they saw me with a plastic water bottle, would they listen? I also come at it from the point of view that we start where we are and we make changes, and nobody's perfect. So while I understand why fossil fuels are bad, yes I still drive an SUV b/c it's what I have and I'm saving to get something better, so in the mean time I make students do research and make recommendations to me about what kind of car (that runs on what kind of fuel) I should get. I stress that it's a learning process for them and for me, and I just have been learning for longer so I know a little bit more. But they may know more than me in some areas, and I love it when I have a student that knows more about a particular topic than I do.

But then again I think they expect the env. sci. teacher to be a little eco nutty, so when they see my waste-length hair and sigg, I think they're not surprised. And I do yell at them about conserving water (what is it with kids and sinks???) and recycling.

In terms of other people, I back off. If someone asks why I do what I do, I'll explain. Otherwise, I'll chime in if it comes up, but I don't preach. I'm not holier than though, just a little bit more eco-conscious.

Anonymous said...

This is one of the reasons I am not going to my family's thanksgiving this year. Not only am I a couple hours drive away anyway, But I did not have a good experience last year. The hostess, my aunt, insisted that we bring corn, even though it was not in season, so we had to go to a conventional market and buy corn. Also, she insisted that we buy the biscuits from Red Lobster because she likes them, even though we had graciously offered to make some really delicious homemade bread. There were a few other incidents like store bought pie versus homemade, that left me exhausted with people's tendencies to have things because it is convenient and I'm just not ready for that this year. I kept my mouth shut last year and even in one year I have gone even more eco; so I don't think I'd be able to stay silent this year. But thanks for the advice, it has helped.

Robj98168 said...

I dont try so much anymore with family- they want to leave a smog ridden planet with pesticide ridden fruit, then so be it. Don't get me wrong- nothing will get my Ire up faster than my Uncle going on his dissertation that we should be thankful for our pesticides and scoff at those who chose organic. I have just come to the realization that they are never going to change, and that I can beller out loud how a few changes save money but my family is arrogant, and thinks basically I am a nutcase- so I just leave it alone. However, it tickles me to know, that since I have no Heirs, that when I die, I will be leaving my money to fave charities, not to relatives!

Anonymous said...

I don't talk about my environmental habits so much, but sometimes I feel like people are judging me--thinking that I do certain things because I'm cheap (buying second-hand clothes or reusing gift bags) or because I'm snobby (choosing good quality food)or because I somehow have more free time than others (line-drying my clothes, reusing plastic bags for bulk grocery items).

If not judging, sometimes people try to bring me down "what is that one little bag going to do?" or "you can recycle it anyway, right?" It gets frustrating. I don't know how to politely respond without engaging in a one-way conversation, so I usually shrug my shoulders and then quietly fume.

Erika said...

Like many here, I wait for the question; if someone asks me 'What's new?' or 'How's it goin'?' I can go about telling them what is new and what's going on... e.g. I canned XXXXX from my garden, made a really good loaf of bread... picked out rain barrels... etc. which usually leads to questions...

My favorite teaching opportunity is when folks offer me free things and I decline. I genuinely thank them, and explain that it's not something I'd use/I can't transport it (e.g. free coffee, and my cup is in the car), then they usually question me, and I get to further explain why I've decided to choose the path I have.


Rhonda Jean said...

Great post! The enviropreachers turn people off. Like many others, my strategy has been to blog about my life in an honest and open manner - stating the good with the bad. My readers seem to like that approach and keep streaming in.

Keep up the good work you do. I keep meaning to add you to my page, I'll do it today.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, Erika, maybe my problem is that nothing's new with me - still canning my own veggies, 6th year with the CSA, still washing and reusing plastic bags, still got the temp at 58 just like my mom always kept it (the thermal curtains are new, and I'm excited about them, but that's pretty much just preaching consumption since I mail-ordered them.)

We are eating about 20% less meat than last year, but that kind of incremental change isn't very exciting.

hmd said...

I usually let people approach me. I often have someone come up to me in the grocery store, at the library - wherever I am running my errands - and ask me about my canvas bags, or why I bike and walk instead of drive, etc. I think it makes a bigger impact if people inquire rather than me trying to push my ideals onto anyone else.

Something else I do is hang out at our local farmers market and talk up the whole "eating local" thing. I've made a lot of friends this way and passed along some tips on other resources for local food in our community.

One last thing, when I'm at a party, when people ask me what I've "been up to," I always mention working in my veggie garden, visiting the library and the farmers market, biking around town etc. It's a great opener for talking about a more mindful lifestyle.

I guess to answer your question, I look for opportunities for the conversation to happen naturally.

Anonymous said...

You are so right. I know when someone attacks me about my green loving life and all the things I do I get upset. So it is only natural that they would be upset that you attack their way of life. The best way to get them to be openminded is to not shove it down their throats but rather slowly introduce them to it. The way we have to change one step at a time other need just one simple thing at a time. I love the thought of giving enviromentally friendly gifts this Christmas but I am not sure how they would go over. So as a way to sneak it in without them realizing it I am making washclothes and giving homemade soap, and a detergent mix. Something useful that everyone uses and is simple. I may include some homemade bath salts and maybe some organic lotion or something like that and I plan to try to package it in a reuseable shopping bag. So wish me luck they will either love it or absolutely think I finally lost my mind.
Kim In WV

Tanya Seaman said...

I really like what a couple of commenters have said about responding to the “how are you” questions with something interesting regarding my lifestyle: where I biked, what I knitted to stay warm during my ride, what I’ve learned I can grow, the seedlings I’ve started, etc. Since I’ve been doing a ton of blog-reading and researching, this is an excellent way for me to share my findings with friends and family. Friends and some family members find me a bit inconvenient to plan meals with as I’m a vegan. As they think of themselves as living pretty sustainable lives, this is frustrating for me, and I don’t broach the subject of their diets. It has made me keep to myself about my sustainable practices – but other commenters have given me some new ideas.

Anonymous said...

I let it come up naturally in conversation but on occassion make the opportunity by supplying an opener.

Recently I bought a wooden toy for a friend's child and I mentioned how difficult it was to find such a toy. She asked why I wanted wooden and I replied, 'oh you know, the whole plastic problem'. We left it there but a week later she asked for an explanation.

Anonymous said...

I too, liked the idea of answering the "how are you?" question with saying something green that you have been up to. However,the problem with this is that the "how are you?" question has now just become a way to say "hi" and I don't know if people really want to know how you are doing or what you have been up to. In many other countries, when people ask "how are you?" they really want to know, I feel it is just a formality in the US. So, just be sure they want to hear something other than "fine, how are you?"

Bev said...

I agree with everyone else here - no one likes to feel dismissed or frowned upon.

I do want to echo katecontinued's point in one way though. I have often heard terms describing do-gooder tree huggers, envirofreaks, overzealous, and humorless, etc. that are really just designed to shut our comments down. Sort of like the impression that if someone designates themselves as a feminist then they get described as a man-hating feminazi. It is really a way of demonizing the point of view one dislikes and suggesting their argument, idea, or experience is invalid because they are perceived or portrayed as extreme.

There are times when people don't want to hear what you have to say no matter how nonjudgmental you are or how friendly or funny a way you put it. So, while I agree that no one likes an asshole, I also think we should be careful when analyzing our own community and activist positions about whether we are trying to avoid confrontation because we want to help and educate, or because we aren't brave enough to take the names others might call us.

Anonymous said...

I educate quietly...our office had a Thanksgiving pitch-in yesterday and instead of using the paper plates and plastic table-ware provided, I brought my own table service from my cubicle. No one asked why, but quite a few commented that they would try it next pitch-in.

Joy said...

I just tell them what I do and let them ask questions - or not. I may mention a product that works on something they have trouble with and see if I can help with a earth-friendly option. It's usually better for their bank account, too; which helps.