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April 14, 2013

How to Talk about the Environment

If you follow environmental issues closely, you may often feel the urge to share your knowledge with those around you for the sake of the common good. You think: "if only Gina and Joe knew about the Sargasso Sea of plastic trash in the Pacific, they'd stop buying bottled water." Or: "tomorrow's the last day for public comments on fracking. I'd better get the word out."

In theory, educating family and friends about these issues is a great idea. In practice, it's a hard trick to pull off.

If you've tried it, you know. Your lessons rarely go over as well as you'd hoped. Inexplicably, your friends yawn and change the subject or argue the points. However they react, the upshot is the same: no conversions to the cause.

At least, that's often been my experience.

There's is a simple reason, and we all know what it is. Outside the classroom, people don't like being lectured to. Even less do they like being told how to live, except perhaps by real preachers, and then only on the Sabbath. At worst, they're offended; at best, they write us off ("There's Amanda going on about the environment again...")

So how can we get our message across more effectively to our family and friends?

We begin by being mindful of the nature of these relationships. Our nearest and dearest are not potential recruits, but people who trust and care for us. To speak to them otherwise, even in the service of a good cause, would distance them from us, which can't be good.

We consider each person's interests, just as we do in ordinary conversation. (None of my friends would think to talk to me about sports, nor would I bring up science fiction or fantasy to many of them.) If there's no point of connection on an environmental issue, we don't bring the subject up. If there is, we make it as relevant to the person as possible.

We avoid talking doom and gloom at get-togethers where our seriousness would be out of place. It never pays to be a killjoy.

When it comes to green practices, we talk about what we do, not about what others should do. and to the extent possible, we rely on our friends to see what we do, rather than make a point of telling them. After all, our reusable water bottle and cloth napkins don't really need commentary, nor does our habit of biking to the store. These things really do speak for themselves.

When raising a particular issue, we explain why it matters to us. Do we want to save forests because our father loved trees? We tell that story. Do we fight for clean air standards because our child has asthma? We tell that story too. Was it an essay by Thoreau that got us living more simply? A film about factory farming that made us stop eating meat? The memory of once common butterflies that have disappeared from our garden which got us campaigning for a carbon cap to reign in climate change? When we relate these stories, we dwell on our Eureka! moments, knowing they will make a greater impression than a recitation of facts alone.

Of course, we bring facts to the table too, solid ones we're sure of, but not too many at a time. People will ask if they want to know more.

If a friend disagrees with our position, we ask why and listen with an open mind, remembering there is something to be learned on both sides from every exchange.

We are not strident and we know when to stop. If we've described the issue, tied it to the person's interests, told our personal story, and got no reaction, we put the subject to bed.

But if we see a spark of interest, we fan the flame.

In the end, we let the other person decide whether he or she is interested. And we respect the person either way, just as we hope to be respected in turn.

We know there will always  be another opportunity for conversation. We keep the doors open.

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