Effective Environmental Messaging

General reaction to a lot of posts on Facebook this year:   People care about stuff, and they post what they care about. And they post about what other people care about. It's curious how many of my friends posts demonstrate they care about what other peoples value systems are. Many of us are very certain of our own value system, what we care about, and express fear or anger at a society that doesn't seem to care about it. Or perhaps the post is an ad (I posted about giraffe extinction yesterday) to get people to care about what we personally care deeply about.

And as you know, a lot of caring in the USA was about politics this year. The irony is that to be successful in the primaries, you have to motivate the people who already care about what you care about, convince them that you are their messenger. But to win the general election, that group isn't sufficient. You need to add, either by convincing the other party to change its mind and care about what you care about - or much more likely, appeal to 1/3 to 2/3 of voters who really care about stuff right in front of them, today. Who aren't thinking about "the trade deficit" or "national debt" or policies. To get most peoples attention, you need to trigger an emotion, get them to care enough to vote for you.

Perhaps HRC's error was a message of "how long I have worked to protect children" - telling people to care about a duration of time. That fails to describe the children or their problems. Failed to deliver message to trigger emotions (appeal to nurture). DJT on the other hand had no track record fighting "bad immigrants", but described the people/problem colorfully (appeal to fear).

Voters lose interest in hearing about years of resume experience. Attention to the INTERESTING is a skill evolved in humans over millenia. When HRC highlighted individual women insulted by DJT she more successfully appealed to emotion. But DJT was always personal.

People care about people and animals, they don't care about qualifications and temperatures. This may sound cynical, but it's just mass communications. I'm about numbers now, but I became an environmentalist thanks to Jacques Cousteau, Jane Goodall, Diane Fosse, and Walt Disney. They got me to care, and through my care I studied, and then became an environmental professional (where uninteresting numbers are the only thing that matters to be effective).

Effective mass communication requires us to speak to a broader audience. "If it bleeds, it leads" in journalism was a response to the fact that people buy papers which have pictures and well written stories that trigger emotions. "Bleeds" (accidents) simultaneously appeal to both FEAR and NURTURE, and very basically in a human emotional reaction to the crime or violence that made someone bleed.

Fear is a strong emotion. Nurture is a better innate emotion, but we have to use it carefully. Worst is to waste it on nonsense, to create "poster child syndrome" over a false poster child story which both wastes limited capacity of society to emotionalize and then turns people conservatively cynical when they find out poster child messenger didn't know what they were talking about and were making it up as they went along.

What I like to blog about is the derivative of environmental trends, how we convince people to care about something that will make a difference for species diversity.  I began to care about habitat because I cared about animals, and I cared about animals because I cared about children.  It broke my heart to think of children in the future knowing that rain forests and coral reefs once were, but had been broken and destroyed by my generation before they were even born.

That's what got me into environmental politics - Goodall, Cousteau, Fosse, Disney.  Then, I was educated enough to care about effectiveness and measures.  If you are going to be a professional environmentalist, you must do accounting, boring, uninteresting stuff.  It becomes more interesting if you are with other professionals who share the interest.  It's the same as any other career, you develop a vocabulary and measures to define success and failure.  I happen to be in recycling because it could reduce mining and forestry, which are the main industries that expose remote areas to nefarious humans.  Extinction follows the same mountain trails that copper mining does.

As recycling and environmentalism has become more professional, we have tended to leave the education of non-professionals to lesser qualified environmentalists.  It's the same as our approach to education.  We pay college professors, those educating the elites, more than we pay kindergarden teachers who must teach everyone the basics.

Environmentalists over the past decades have left education of the masses to PIRGs who knock on doors and send people who may or may not know what they are talking about to get people who may or may not care to do so.

Fifteen or twenty years ago, a VPIRG person knocked on my door and told me about poor Chinese children poisoned by e-waste, and how we had to stop America from exporting poisonous computers to Chinese children.  A college professor asked me to attend a class he was giving on the subject, and was also telling students about the VPIRG message.

This blog came about because people didn't know what they were talking about and were making it up as they go along.  I hoped that through the internet I might write stuff that was derivative and just interesting enough to introduce me to the best influencers.

No one is going to give a rats ass about "e-waste" pretty soon.  It has become junk.  But the environmentalists should learn about the power of poster children, and the way to use that power wisely.  We risk talking about carbon policy and years of use of computers and losing the message on gorillas threatened by coltan mining to get tantalum for cell phones.  

I don't think people will react emotionally to a message about how big a pile of plastic is floating in the ocean, or how much ice melted at the north pole, or how big the landfills are. People react to greed, fear, and nurture. Nurture is my favorite emotion... it's love.  Greed is easiest to work with, you change macro policy and the free market moves a direction.  Change the general mining act of 1872 and recycling stocks will skyrocket.  Introduce a pollution stream to "my backyard" - a place that has an effect on my real estate value - and I'll march and shout.

Fear is something that environmentalists have done a pretty poor job of communicating.  If you are going to use fear as a motivator, it's usually for a one-time, short term decision, like getting someone to vote on a specific day, or cease performing a specific act, or a "point of purchase" decision.  This is the science of sales and marketing and human psychology.

That's what I'm thinking about as I read Facebook posts. What the hell is wrong with me?  My belief system is derivative.  It makes complete sense to me, it's super interesting.  But can I change enough to offset enough human behavior to make a positive difference in the planet, and can I actually do as much as if I was pushing a cart in Accra and collecting wire to offset copper mining at the OK Tedi Mine in Papua New Guinea, where the orangutans are being wiped out?

Trying to do both here.  If I can recover enough recyclables, employing average people of average interest (not much), introduce them to other average people from other countries to get over the fear and exoticism of DJT, meet my financial obligations, and develop messages for top professors and environmental policy experts, I'll have done what I could.  But really, it's about recording it so that someone else does even better.  It's an Alexis de Tocqueville thing.

Scott Adams, cartoonist (Dilbert) and author, wrote about this year's election in a blog that was very insightful about effective messaging.  If you want to take my ideas about re-crafting environmental messaging, follow links Scott links to above.

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