Note to self: quit preaching to the [green] choir

In my last foray into non-fiction, Dark Nature: A Natural History of Evil by Lyall Watson, I came across an interesting concept: ideas as viruses, using us as hosts to jump around and propagate. By this logic, I am ‘infected’ with environmentalism. Chances are, if you’re reading this, so are you. But I doubt it was my blog that ‘infected’ you with an acute case of planetary love; you found it because you were already concerned.

Breaking out of the bubble...That’s the thing about blogs. They attract people who are already interested in what you have to say. In other words, we’re not spreading infection so much as forming leper colonies. (Possibly the least sexy metaphor I’ve ever penned.)  Blogs create tidy, comforting bubbles of like-minded people. If my blog were about, say, how blind gray cats are awesome, and it attracted all the 20 other blind gray cat lovers in the world to leave enthusiastic and supportive comments, I might begin to think, “Hey, people are listening to me! People agree with me! Everyone must think blind gray cats are awesome!”

It’s the same thing with any cause, including environmentalism. I’ve insulated myself from the indifferent, the skeptical, the downright hostile with an online community that, in the real world, is a distinct minority. But I only interact with people who share my environmental concerns, so I sometimes forget how much of a minority we really are.

The result is a sense of utterly misguided complacency. As a profoundly introverted and reticent person, I can blog from the safety of my home, safe from unwanted human contact, and believe that a majority of people in the world care about protecting natural resources. 

I’m calling myself out on this one. If we go back to the virus metaphor for a minute, it’s clear that I’m not infecting anyone who isn’t already infected. While I’m in here blogging about how to turn vegetable scraps into stock, I have neighbors who drive 50 feet to the laundry room, throw cardboard in the trash, and buy bottled water by the truckload.

Like diseases, maybe ideas need to be transmitted in person. It’s not enough to stay home and blog, or even to go out but only talk to like-minded people. The internet is powerful, but it is also distinctly limited when it comes to meaningful interaction with another human being. The real question all along has been about how to make green go viral — beyond a niche movement of Birkenstock-wearing hippies, beyond the scientific community. And like anything else viral, I think it has to be about social.

I hate that part. If I believed in spirit animals, mine would probably be the cactus cat, a mythical solitary creature with spines instead of fur. Social behavior is not intuitive for me. I will never be the, er, ebola of the green movement. But I care too much about the fate of this fragile little blue and green planet to stop here. 

This is where I could use your help. Presumably you’re more social than I am. What can I do to make green more contagious to people who don’t give a damn? Frankly, I can’t think of anything I could say to my truck-driving neighbors that would not get me lynched, but I feel like I should at least try.

36 responses to this post.

  1. Great point, Jennifer. This is a huge issue. I assume that’s why we all have greenie blogs. I honestly don’t have much great advice here – social connection is something I really struggle with too. There’s one thing that stands out, though: Regardless of what I say directly to people, they are inspired by what I do for myself. I have never told my friends to buy eco-conscious products, but since they know I care, they are paying more attention.

    I don’t think it’s necessary whatsoever to win someone in a logical argument on environmentalism. Most of the time that’s not going to work. It will only for the more logically minded, which are few.

    I think it really helps to backtrack to a time when you weren’t green. What were the defining moments that began the infection within you? For me it was a number of reports and books that I had read. Intellectual. Which is not the answer most people will respond to, unfortunately.

    Reply

    • Thanks, Lynn! Friends have definitely helped shape my attitude toward sustainability. Quite early on in my forays into greenness, a friend praised me for buying recycled paper towels. She sounded surprised but proud of me. Didn’t say a word about how even recycled paper towels are far from ideal. If she had, I think that would have turned me off the idea entirely. Instead, that gentle, non-judgmental social support ended up encouraging me to buy more Seventh Generation products, whose labels educated me more about the impact of my decisions, and so on.

      I hadn’t really thought about this incident before, but it’s been years since it happened and I still remember it. I’ll have to consider how I can apply its essential principles to, er, infect more people.

      Reply

  2. Posted by ecoguest on 03/29/2011 at 09:42

    You make me laugh. I don’t think we can be any more in sync than this post.

    I’ve been thinking about this lately too. I feel like I am always preaching to the choir. I have so many subscribers but none of them leave any comments or even click my post sometimes. I got so depressed the other day thinking about this because the ones that take the time to leave comments are people like you. While I look for your comments (don’t get me wrong), any comments, and I salivate when I noticed that someone left a comment, I get sorta disappointed when it’s another greenie.

    But on the other hand, I try so hard to be a darker greenie daily, but then, I get criticized by extremists for not being green enough!

    So, I can’t win no matter what. I even thought about not blogging or being green on social media. I felt so disconnected from all sides. The jury is still out that but I am re-thinking this whole preaching to the green choir thing too.

    But one thing I do find effective, in finding new not-so-green audience, is to write for not-so-greenie publication and try to head up a column. I know I said I’m rethinking social media but you have to get on facebook if you want to reach anyone these days. You just have to become more social. No getting around it.

    Reply

    • That’s sucky that people criticize you for not being green enough. I don’t think any of us has the right to look down on people who are trying their hardest to live more sustainably. I hope this post didn’t discouraging you from continuing to blog or tweet green — I’m not saying it doesn’t make any difference (I certainly feel like I’ve gotten greener and more thoughtful through my green blog community), just that it’s not enough in itself to stop there.

      You and Bill have both made the suggestion to seek out new, less green channels. I’m definitely listening! I guess I am a little afraid of coming up against hardcore climate change deniers. I’ve never liked confrontation.

      Reply

  3. Posted by seitei on 03/29/2011 at 10:24

    Well, I have no advice for you, but I agree that the more you ‘walk the walk’, the more people around you will notice. Whether it’s initiating a recycling program at work, shopping w/ yr reusable bags, or driving a Prius, these are things that are social. (Albeit they are ‘light green’, you have to start somewhere.) I think people will really start to notice you if you go a little darker and start carrying compost around in yr pockets! (not sure that’s the kind of exposure you want, though!).

    Anyway, I loved yr leper colony metaphor. It made my day. Keep writing regardless of the size of yr choir. Things will develop as they will. “Patience, darlin’, patience.”

    Reply

    • I kinda like the way Priuses are a fad here in the Silicon Valley. There are fads about much stupider (and less environmentally friendly) things, so if we could create enough peer pressure to make things like reusable bags and water bottles must-have items, it would be…well, a start. I still think that there’s a certain attitude involved in committing to sustainability that is less easily made viral.

      I’ll start carrying compost in my pockets when you start a rooftop garden on top of your car. Deal?

      Reply

  4. Posted by seitei on 03/29/2011 at 10:26

    ps. again, maybe you’d like ‘The Tipping Point’.

    Reply

  5. Jennifer,

    Great post. I can think of two specific ideas you could try:

    1) Check out my post “How to Be an Eco-Advocate Without Coming Off as a Freaky Green” (http://www.thenewpursuit.com/2011/02/02/how-to-be-an-eco-advocate-without-coming-off-as-a-freaky-green/). There I put out some ideas for connecting with the Non-Greenies among us and starting that dialog.

    2) Find a different outlet to reach this audience. You’re spot on in your observations that our blogs are for the most part connecting us with like-minded individuals who are likely already aligned from a cause point of view. I faced the same connundrum and decided to pitch a column for simple, green living to our regional newspaper. They liked it and I’ve been writing a bi-weekly column since. My sense is that their readership is comprised of many people for whom such discussion is new and/or could be revisited in a way that my style (I hope) connects the dots better for them. Sure, you’re not gaining any social media followers this way, but that’s not the point. You’re a change agent and advocate first.

    Another related idea is to connect with people through their kids. I’m fortunate to have three young, school-age kids, so I try to bring sustainability issues to the kid organizations I’m involved with (in a kid-friendly way). I’ve found that if you can get the child to go home and want to let’s say, recycle, you have an initial hook with the parents.

    Hope this all helps. Be well!

    Reply

    • Bill, thank you for the reminder about your post. I remember reading it a while ago and thinking it had some good ideas. The one thing it’s not going to help with is my essential introversion and reluctance to talk to people. I don’t think anything’s going to help there except the desire to overcome it. I’m getting there; it’s just going to take a while.

      I love your idea about approaching small regional newspapers. That sounds very do-able. I’ll look into it!

      Reply

  6. Haha, I guess I shouldn’t mention that I enjoy comments from other environmentalists and fear the day when I get negative feedback from someone who thinks this is all a waste of time or a lost cause!

    But to answer your question, it can be useful to try the money angle. I love telling people that driving 120 km/h (75 mph) is so much more wasteful on fuel than 100 km/h (62 mph) that you’re effectively spending 20% more at the pumps. People might actually listen to you if you have money-saving tips like this!

    Reply

    • I think it’s important for us to be supportive of each other, and leaving comments is definitely one way to do that. (I appreciate yours so much! Please don’t let me dissuade you from leaving them!) At the same time, it’s not enough to create a small, insulated, supportive community if we’re looking for real change.

      The self interest perspective is definitely useful for getting people interested. My problem is more how to approach them at all. I’m pretty sure my truck driving neighbors don’t really care about saving money on gas. The one thing I’ve thought of is offering to walk their laundry to the laundry room myself, but I’m not sure I’m that selfless or that they’ll learn anything from that.

      Reply

      • “My problem is more how to approach them at all…”

        This has been the problem in the rise and fall of all civilizations in the past. The vast majority of the general population will remain in a state of denial until it is too late to avoid collapse. History shows us that civilization has reached its current lofty perch before, only to collapse because of fundamental flaws in our understanding of the true relationship between humans and nature – http://www.triplepundit.com/2010/12/designing-big-wheel-civilization/

        For the record, a large majority of land development professionals are in agreement on what needs to be done to correct the problems, according to a survey designed to gauge the industry’s perceptions of who/what is responsible for the current economic situation, what will be needed to improve it, the industry’s overall acceptance of and receptivity to sustainable land development principles and practices, and the industry’s current level of implementation of the most common “green” programs currently available – http://www.triplepundit.com/2010/09/sldi-study-provides-revealing-look-at-the-state-of-the-industry/

        Sustainable Land Development Initiative
        http://www.triplepundit.com/author/sldi/

        Reply

  7. Posted by Mrsgreen@Littlegreenblog.com on 03/30/2011 at 00:02

    Another excellent post and this is something that I think about too. I’m a total introvert and although I’ve had the opportunity to speak to the ‘non green’ it takes up so much adrenalin to go out there and talk that I’m in bed for a couple of days afterwards, yep, I’m THAT much an introvert.
    Bills idea of writing for a local ‘non green’ publication is excellent but most of all I’ll bet that living by example is far further reaching that you will ever know. Even if your neighbours continue to use their trucks, perhaps you are influencing them in ways you are unaware of …

    Reply

    • Hey there, Mrs. Green! I wonder if introverts are a majority in the green movement? I live in fear of public speaking. I hate even asking strangers questions! Kudos to you for doing it regardless of your introversion. I keep thinking that I’ll get better at this as I get older, but I’m not seeing much evidence.

      I would like to think that living by example goes further than I think it does, but honestly, I think my neighbors (and others) might be a little too wrapped up in their own lives to notice.

      Reply

  8. It was really interesting to read your post and all the associated comments. You raise a real issue-one that many(if not most)of us struggle with. My advice is as follows:

    Keep preaching to the choir. The choir is a transient place-people are constantly coming and going and your writing and preaching might just keep someone in that would otherwise move on.

    Continue living by your words. Your are the best role model for those around you. People that wouldn’t otherwise touch anything remotely “green” might become inspired by you!

    I love the idea of reaching out to some not so green venues-writing, speaking etc… I have spoken in front of a number of not very green audiences and was amazed to hear the number of questions and genuine interest in going green. You might be pleasantly surprised.

    Keep doing what you’re doing.

    Reply

    • Lori, thank you so much for pointing out that the choir is transient — that’s a piece of the puzzle that I haven’t really thought about before. I think you’re right that green blogging can encourage the curious or re-energize the flagging. I’ve certainly found that to be true for me.

      It’s good to know that non-greenies are not necessarily scary or hostile.🙂 Thanks for the encouragement.

      Reply

  9. “If I believed in spirit animals, mine would probably be the cactus cat, a mythical solitary creature with spines instead of fur.” ROFL🙂
    I’m not good at social, either…
    Leading by example is my way. I remember a couple of years ago I was grocery shopping with my brother and SIL (they were visiting); they wanted salads, and my brother reached for a large round plastic container filled with a ready-to-eat salad. I told him to choose a different one, with no plastic, and he said “If you don’t buy it, somebody else will so what’s the point?”
    I froze for a few seconds, then I answered “Well, I don’t want to be that somebody.” and bought some regular salad. He didn’t say anything, but he now recycles plastic so maybe I did have a positive influence…

    Reply

    • Hi Cristina! It’s interesting that this post is getting so many of us to admit that we’re not actually very good at being social.🙂 Who knew? (Is it a total oxymoron to socialize over being unsociable?) I love your example with your brother. Even if you didn’t singlehandedly convert him into an eco warrior, it sounds like he is paying attention and his mind is becoming more receptive to sustainable practices. Aggh, I think it goes back to being patient, encouraging, and non-judgmental.

      Reply

  10. Posted by ecoconvert on 03/31/2011 at 09:20

    I’ve got my own leper colony going, for sure. I just blogged this same issue a week or two ago because I had written a blog about how Christian stewardship can be applied to environmentalism, and I got practically NO hits because it said “Catholic” in the title of my blog. Greenies can’t just preach to the choir😀

    Keep up the good work!

    Reply

  11. Posted by Renee on 03/31/2011 at 21:37

    My first time reading this blog, which I found through Twitter. Following! Happy now. Thank you.

    I had to comment because I started a mission last year to try to reach non-greenies. I’ve wondered often about how to crack the code.

    The questions I ask myself daily: What is the catalyst? When is that moment that a person crosses over into living more sustainably — and what can I do to make it happen more often?

    Whether you think it does or not, I’m willing to bet this here blog (and the pithy, honest, non-judgmental writing) reaches many people who are outside the “leper colony.” (: Ha I love that) Those on the fence are looking over and wondering, “What are the benefits of the Way of the Green? Is it worth the effort? Do I have to be white/rich/liberal to do it?” (The answers are Many, Yes and Absolutely not.🙂

    People are out there searching online, and you’re deepening the conversation. Who knows what small thing you may write that could be the reason someone goes green.

    Beyond that and piggybacking on Bill’s comment, are there any online communities for your city or neighborhood where you could do a column or post your blog posts? That could be a way to branch out in social media.

    Reply

    • Hi Renee! I’m so glad you found me! I hopped over to your blog and added you to my RSS. Like you, I’m wondering about the whole indoor vermicomposting thing…not so sure I can overcome my squeamishness to the extent that worms in the kitchen will ever be acceptable.

      Thanks for your kind words about my blog. I hope you’re right, though I know I also need to be reaching out more locally and interpersonally. I’ve gotten lots of ideas from comments on this post; my next task is to get off my butt and start implementing them! I think you nailed the basic questions people on the fence have. I’ve actually been thinking about writing an entry on the many ways in which green = cheap, and have posted before on busting green stereotypes.

      Reply

    • “I’ve wondered often about how to crack the code…”

      Cracking the Code: The Essence of Sustainable Development
      http://www.triplepundit.com/2011/02/fractal-frontier/

      It’s hardly news that after more than two decades of talk about the need for sustainable development, we humans continue to have a poor track record when it comes to achieving sustainable results. How can we implement change while up against the overwhelming current of business as usual? It will take a new perspective, new approaches and different means of leadership.

      For the first time, a condensed & balanced triple-bottom-line set of defining articles, collectively entitled The Fractal Frontier – Sustainable Development Trilogy, is now available for your review. The trilogy examines the reasons for our past failures, a new scientific basis for the essence of achieving sustainable development in the future, the nine universal principles that must be built into any sustainable project, ways to educate, plan and lead teams to achieve sustainable results, and much more – http://www.triplepundit.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/THE-FRACTAL-FRONTIER.pdf.

      It is important to note that the information contained in the document is universal in its application and need not be confined to land development projects.

      Your participation and comments are welcome.

      Sustainable Land Development Initiative
      http://www.triplepundit.com/author/sldi/

      Reply

      • Posted by Renee on 04/04/2011 at 08:48

        Terry,

        Wow, thank you! I’m to spend some time checking this out and will definitely participate.

        Reply

  12. What a fantastic discussion. I feel exactly the same way – that I am preaching to the converted. However – only the converted leave comments, others visit and I don’t know what they think. Perhaps they are non-greenies? I find comfort though, knowing that there is a community of greenies out there like me, that are just as passionate about the issue as I am. People like you inspire me to keep it up and keep writing, so hopefully I can inspire others and pass it on as well. I have found that some of my inner circle of family and close friends have been influenced to make some different choices now that I am doing things differently, for example both my mom and sister are growing seedlings along with me! Ripple effect – you never know your full impact, so you just have to just keep on trying.

    I love Bill’s idea about a column in a regional paper! I have to think that one over some more!! How do you even approach it?

    Reply

  13. What a great topic and wonderful conversation. I worry about preaching to the choir too and I’m definitely not an extrovert. So maybe we are in a blog bubble to some degree, and it’s true that only/mostly bloggers leave comments. But I do think others happen upon our blogs sometimes and sometimes what we blog will make a difference. Plus the choir needs encouragement and ideas too.

    But I think it is good to look at ways to talk to people outside of our bubbles. And I do try to slip things in here and there when I’m talking to strangers like clerks in the store. Sorry, I don’t have any fantastic answers, but I’m really glad you raised this question.

    Reply

    • Thank you for your words of encouragement, Sandra. I’ll see where I can start nudging — perhaps at the pottery studio or at the cat rescue where I volunteer. I’ve seen things that could certainly be done in a more sustainable way in both those places; it’s just a matter of figuring out how I can help!

      Reply

  14. Posted by Helen on 04/04/2011 at 00:42

    I loved this blog – a bit of honesty goes a long way!

    I just wanted to say to everyone who has commented – don’t despair! I have only just made the decision to ‘go green’, and I have found all the blogs online amazingly helpful.

    So thank you to all of you for putting all that information out there.

    Reply

    • I’m so glad you found my blog, Helen! Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment, and huge congrats to you for making that decision.🙂 Welcome to the neverending process of greening — please speak up if you have questions or need encouragement. I’ll check out your blog in a moment.

      Reply

  15. Posted by Emily on 04/07/2011 at 13:39

    I second Bill’s suggestion to reach out to children. I was turned on to environmentalism when I was young after reading the popular kid’s book, “50 Ways to Save the Planet.” I also learned about recycling at school. I remember recruiting my parents to help me recycle, pick up garbage, put a brick in the back of the toilet to save water, etc. Kids are really open-minded and can actually provoke change in their parents!

    And to join the bandwagon, I am another introverted, environmentalist blogger. I created my blog to help a create a community of like-minded folks. I really enjoy the the dicussions on blogs such as this; without the blog world, I’d have fewer “green” dialogs. I’m trying to get out in “the real world” bit by bit- last year I got a community garden plot, this year I’ll volunteer at a CSA. Being social is something that many of need to actively practice.

    Reply

    • Good thoughts, Emily. I work with kids, and while some are already very into environmentalism (one has his own backyard chickens!), there are definitely a few who could stand to be gently nudged, at least towards recycling their plastic bottles. There’s one kid I’m thinking of…he’s a bit older, but I will see if I can do anything to change his attitude!

      Reply

  16. Well, you have at least one non-Greenie reading your blog!🙂 I’m a Christian, not an environmentalist/greenie/tree-hugger/what have you. We are told to be good stewards of creation, to respect and care for God’s creation. And if a Christian takes this charge fully to heart then we naturally become “Green” in our lifestyle. I live on an organic sheep and cattle farm, use cloth menstural pads, even cloth toilet wipes… we recycle, we “make do and mend”, all manner of things that would be considered “Green” I suppose. But personally I think labels are quite confusing and they divide us into distinct groups while cultivating an Us vs. Them mentality. I think we should, religious or not, promote good stewardship of our world by living a livestyle that openly and unabashedly witnesses to responsible living ~ and abandon the lables.🙂

    Reply

    • Hi Michelle! Thanks for speaking up — and for reading. I’ve often thought about posting on the unlikely partnership of overeducated hippies (guilty!) and homesteaders. I have a friend in Arkansas who also does many things that I would consider green, but for Christian and frugal reasons. Honestly, I really don’t think it matters what label we use or why we start taking better care of the planet, and the more people we reach, the better. Cloth toilet wipes, huh? I think that sounds like a challenge!🙂

      Reply

      • If we love then we will always so the right thing from our hearts ~ and if we can inspire people to love our world and to love one another then we can do great things, all without having to adhere to an ideology!🙂

        Cloth toilet paper would have been a challenge pre-children lol

        Reply

  17. Posted by sarahlizhousespouse on 11/08/2013 at 10:43

    Like-minded people remind us that we are not alone. As more and more people are inspired to change their behavior I think you’ll feel more and more bold about sharing with people who would be otherwise unsympathetic.
    I have always been a tiny bit green, but I actually came across my inspiration in a Martha Stewart magazine. Bea Johnson. She’s “extreme” and yet she was featured by a mainstream magazine. She wasn’t portrayed as some kind of nut despite living an unconventional lifestyle.

    Reply

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