Environmentalists’ message needs work

What’s that, Burt’s Bees Butt Wax?” quipped my dad during our Christmas present-opening session last month as I opened yet another organic lotion/potion. It’s a bizarre family tradition to carry on a satirical, brutally honest commentary as we open gifts. This time the “hippie-dippy” gifts I’d asked for — living food cookies, a hemp shower curtain — were the easy butt of many jokes. Clearly, not everybody lusts after sweaters made of Indiana alpaca fur, compact florescent light bulbs or other symbols of an Earth-friendly lifestyle.

Knowing that Indiana ranks 48th out of 50 states in environmental quality might cause some Hoosiers to alter their behaviors, since it’s apparent that the powers-that-be are not altering theirs. While other states embrace renewable energy, Indiana is still burning coal, because it’s cheap and plentiful and it’s the status quo. Indiana’s combination of heavy industry and agribusiness means that we get air pollution from factories and groundwater pollution from the factory farms. Two thousand Indiana waterways are designated as impaired. We’re even struggling to have a viable curbside recycling program going in Indianapolis. Then there’s global warming, the 800-pound gorilla of all environmental woes.

At events like the Hoosier Environmental Council’s Central Region organizing forum or the annual Earth Charter Summit, sincere people gather on Saturday afternoons to forge plans for improving Indiana’s environment, addressing issues like mass transit, clean streams, organic food, sewer overflow, green architecture and non-polluting power sources.

But what about the thousands of people who don’t show up at these activist gatherings? Aside from pictures of forlorn polar bears, what’s the best way to arouse more personal, or public, environmental awakenings?

1) The most righteous, and the least effective, is the moral rhetoric. You are responsible for deforestation because of the amount of toilet paper you use over a lifetime. It’s a crime to sully the planet so that our children’s children are stuck with devastation. Shame, shame.

2) Disasters. Was Hurricane Katrina the best reminder that global warming is real? Is $5-a-gallon gas the best incentive to bike, bus or walk? Will avian bird flu and mad cow disease turn us all vegan? The more vivid the peril, the easier action becomes.

3) Fear of undesirability works to sell plastic surgery; will fear of asthma and cancer work to get people to pressure power companies to ditch coal and use clean energy?

4) Make environmentalism cool. If you subscribe to the value of living lightly on the planet, there is a host of products ready to be sold to you: recycled carpet, socially-responsible mutual funds, organic root beer and, of course, Burt’s Bees. Remind people of the power of voting with their dollars.

5) For practical Hoosiers, there’s always the pocketbook argument. In the long run, pro-environmental saves you money. Anything that prevents health problems, prevents remediation and saves a natural resource is an economic investment in the future.

6) What would Jesus drive? There’s a growing Christian environmental movement called Care for Creation, with an active Indianapolis chapter, seeking to mobilize the faithful to care for God’s creation and take stewardship to heart.

7) Equate green living with great design. Last year’s Massive Change exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago illustrated how designers and engineers can improve the welfare of humanity on a global scale by repurposing materials, building more holistic buildings and imagining nifty solutions from SegWays in the city to self-filtering water systems in developing nations. The message here is that we don’t have to sacrifice, per se; we just need to design smarter and more sustainable tools, systems and products.

However it’s done, promoting a clean Earth or a toxin-free community in the so-called marketplace of ideas ought to be the easiest sell ever. A convergence of messages from commercial, religious, economic, medical and cultural realms may be the key to transform the environment from the slow-moving scourge only a few can face to the ultimate can-do cause that unites us all.

It doesn’t matter if your motives for environmental action are all about God or all about the latest car. It’s time for our best ingenuity, and a clear course of action. And some Burt’s Bees Butt Wax to grease the wheels.

Anne Laker volunteers for Ecology House of Indianapolis and the marketing committee of the Hoosier Environmental Council. 


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