BioCycle March 2013, Vol. 54, No. 3, p. 61
Anyone claiming to have a stake in the environmental movement should agree that their underlying mission is to stimulate positive action among a typically apathetic public. Positive action can be convincing someone to source separate what is left on their plate after lunch, or purchasing a hybrid vehicle, but it is generally understood that the challenge is to take behavior that is inherently bad for the environment and try to replace it with something, well, inherently less bad. The challenge with today’s environmental problems is that their scale is so immense and the affected populations are so vast that it can be difficult for the average citizen to believe that any change they make will have an impact on the path of complete environmental degradation many believe our society is currently taking.
Back in the 1960s, the strategy for encouraging average citizens to realize that their choices mattered and that their voices could be heard was to get people together in huge groups with one collective mission, and create a presence in the public eye to take a stand on an issue. This approach worked for social, economic and environmental issues as well. Although at times controversial, the protests that these environmental activists successfully organized promoted the passage of such legislation as the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts — watershed environmental legislation that set a path towards decades of environmental protection that continue to this day. Unfortunately, the political gridlock that appears to have come to stay in Washington has created divided camps on social and ethical issues which, despite attempts by many to keep environmental issues separate, still seem to be lumped in with education, abortion, national defense, and the like.
The protest strategies that worked wonders in the past now create more divide on issues than resolution. Whether it’s the coalitions of concerned citizens speaking out against hydrofracking, or the demands of the Occupy protesters in cities around the world, it appears the age of civil disobedience in order to stimulate sweeping policy reform has come to a halt. The United States is the most polarized that it has been since the Civil War. This is disheartening because what is needed to advance any positive environmental change is cooperation in coming up with solutions, not divisiveness. A new direction must be taken that brings people together and empowers them to incorporate behaviors into their daily lifestyles that create real, lasting environmental benefits. The strategy that is needed is community action.
I recently completed a six month research study focused on getting college students in Burlington, Vermont to participate in the city-mandated curbside recycling program. To make a long story short, I was able to statistically prove that acquiring a signed pledge committing to a behavior (in this instance recycling) will in fact increase the likelihood that this person will engage in said behavior. As this study progressed, I found that because my outreach was so localized, it was much easier to encourage the behavior I was promoting. I was entering into these residents’ “sphere of influence” — their own environment that they can personally control — and explaining to them that their participation in the curbside recycling program actually makes a difference in terms of materials collected and reused, as well as materials diverted from the landfill. I was showing them that they had the power to make a change in our environment. This newfound ability to make a difference was encouraging to many. I think it provided a revived sense of optimism that we as a species can learn to live in harmony with our environment, as long as we do our part.
The problem arises when average citizens read about the massive, global issues that threaten our existence on a daily basis. Reading about an ice sheet the size of Texas that is about to crumble into the ocean or a drought that has persisted for months doesn’t necessarily translate into a “How to Live Sustainably for Dummies?” manual. Instead, this news leaves many feeling hopeless, discouraging action. If we are ever going to convince the public that the environment is worth fighting for, we need to convince them that their participation matters. To do this, action must start on the community level — where it is possible to get involved and positively influence public policy and the political debate. Where action is scaled to the problems that are being generated and felt within a community. The action that an individual can engage in and witness its impact on the environment, as well as the community as a whole.
For this reason, we at BioCycle believe that there is a need for a space—in print, on-line, and in person—where community action is recognized and discussed. An opportunity for those feeling helpless to find their voices, and their role in this movement. We all agree that we want change. And we can do something about that.
Nate Clark recently earned a Bachelor of Science in Environmental Studies from the Rubenstein School for the Environment and Natural Resources at the University of Vermont. He focused his studies on creating sustainable development through use of programs tailored to the organization that is employing them.