Power (and Water) to the People

How to Popularize an Environmental Movement
by Jessye Waxman -- February 7th, 2014

Last semester I attended a talk by John Prendergast called Building Blocks for Making a Difference, or how to popularize your social movement. In a series of bullet points and anecdotes, he gave his audience a 10 Step Plan on how to make the world support your cause. As a life-long environmental activist, I was eager to hear what Mr. Prendergast had to say. To my dismay, I walked away discouraged. The message I took home was this: unless you can pitch your cause from either a humanitarian or environmental justice angle, you’re going to have a hard time.

Ok. I should elaborate. Somewhere around Building Block #5, he spoke about “finding a human face”: whatever the issue, it is critical to make people connect to it, and the more personal the connection, the better. So, fundraising to feed starving children is more successful if you showcase a single narrative of one starving child than if you generalize about the condition of starving children. In reality, there were several other Building Blocks that were useful, albeit vague generalizations (ex. “Build Hope”), but I honed in on this one. Give your movement a specific face, and you’ll have greater success.

I’ve been thinking about this recently because (shameless plug) I’ve been planning the Expert Environmentalist for Environmental Alliance, Duke’s undergraduate environmental student group. Expert Environmentalist is a day-long conference that brings together 18 speakers from a variety of different fields to discuss 6 of the most pressing modern environmental challenges (for more information, please visit: Expert Environmentalist). It is an attempt to educate the public on important environmental issues that previously have not been well explained to laymen.

ExEnviro Cover Photo

One of the greatest challenges to the modern environmental movement as a whole is the lack of effective communication among scientists, activists, policy makers, and the public over the science, economics, and policies relevant to different environmental issues. Case in point: climate change. According to a 2013 survey by Pew Research Center, one third of the American public still does not believe in climate change, despite a consensus among 97% of climate scientists.

What the environmental movement needs is a movement to educate both the public and policy makers on the reality of these environmental problems. In other words, the environmental movement needs a more effective environmental education movement, a movement whose focus is on the need to educate, not on bringing attention to a particular environmental crisis that is killing baby polar bears or polluting a homeowner’s drinking water.  It is a movement that, I think, is essential for the future success of the modern environmental movement.

So, my question today is the same as it was for Mr. Prendergast back in November: how do you popularize a movement that doesn’t have a face? Any ideas?

1 Comment

  1. Lisa Breit
    Feb 7, 2014

    Hmm. I don’t see why environmental education can’t encompass Building Block #5 and all the rest. It’s more engaging, when discussing environmental issues, to bring it down to the effect on real people. Granted, it does not have to be a schmaltzy sob story to be effective…but a balanced illustration of the impact of environmental problems on all parties seems critical to helping people understand…and care.

    Today I heard a commentary by a press analyst on the BBC about the indifference of the average British citizen to the goings on in Kiev (protests in the Ukraine). He pointed out that the indifference came from a lack of personal connection, and that educating the public about Ukrainian culture, daily life, and history would help people make a personal connection and sit up and notice what’s going on in Ukraine, as it did during the Arab Spring in Egypt.

    I know that my environmental awareness was awakened during events like Three Mile Island, Exon Valdez, and Love Canal, hearing stories about the effects of pollution, negligence, and willful ignorance on real people.

    Finally, while education is critical–and must be attuned to meeting all kinds of learners and citizens where they are–there also must be organization and action. It’s not enough to know, and far too late. If you are able to educate and MOVE people, they want to take action and there needs to be a structure into which they can invest their efforts.

    It’s all important, so I hope, Jessye, that you keep pushing forward in an effort to education and inform, if that’s where you think you can make your best contribution.

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