June 18, 2008 | General

Not Everyone Speaks Your Language

BioCycle June 2008, Vol. 49, No. 6, p. 19

SINCE I started doing this column, not one person has written me for advice about composting, carbon credits, or for that matter, what to wear or how to get their children to eat vegetables. Nevertheless, I decided this month to take some liberties and write as an advice columnist (I don’t think Dear Abby has anything to worry about!). I want to share some tips on basic etiquette in this new age of sustainability and carbon accounting. You may not initially see how this applies, but please be patient and I think you’ll get the idea.
There is a big temptation as you get really immersed in a field to start speaking in the jargon that only those who are equally immersed in the same field can understand. In a way, this is comforting – you can throw around initials with abandon and feel perfectly at home. As I get more familiar with the GHG field and read more literature from IPCC and protocols from CDM, I sometimes dream in MTCE or GWP – see I just did it! But that helps very few people.
It is critical for those in the field to reach out in ways that everybody can understand, to fully convince the full range of regulators, professionals, and people who throw out the garbage, of the importance of basic things like banana peels. And talking can help. For example, Deb from my yoga class just told me that because of what I said to her, she and her husband are now putting their food waste in with the yard waste. And when I talked to her, I did not mention the IPCC or the CDM, for that matter. I just talked about the CO2 equivalent of the food waste in the landfill and the number of car miles that it was equivalent to.
The take home message on this one is to remember that not everyone knows what you know, and your goal is to explain rather than to bore or alienate people. Speak in language that is clear and that everyone can understand.
Recently, I went to three conferences in one week. The first one was the easiest because all of my buddies were there. It is very easy to talk to your buddies: They know you, you can ask about their kids, they know your idiosyncrasies and they generally agree with you, or at least put up with you. But just talking to your buddies only gets you so far. Talking with them about how your work doesn’t get the recognition that it deserves isn’t the way to start getting that recognition – you have to talk to people who aren’t already your buddies.
That happened at the next two conferences. I had to talk to strangers, people outside my profession. You don’t have to bare your soul to them, but it really does help to talk to people in different fields about what we do. This talking can be a mixture of bragging and asking for advice. They are often interested, and in some cases those conversations can lead to productive cooperation, new and innovative approaches, and increased awareness for what we do.
At one of the recent meetings, I had lunch with someone from UK Water. They have taken a very proactive approach there and are working directly with government ministries to set appropriate greenhouse gas policies with regard to wastewater treatment and end-use of biosolids. He pointed out that the people who help set the policies are the ones that show up at meetings. You don’t necessarily get an invitation, and so waiting by the mail is generally as futile as waiting for Prince Charming to call. Instead, it is often best to seek out that invitation – make the offer to share your expertise.
Often in fields that deal with waste materials, our approach has been more to try and fly under the radar to avoid environmental activists or questions from an ignorant public sector. Maybe a more productive approach would be to actively seek out those questions and public involvement. After the first few headaches and palm sweats, you might find that it isn’t so bad after all.
This broader vision of sustainability and how everyday actions impact climate change has the potential to forge new partnerships that would have been impossible to predict years back. It is also causing us to think outside of our normal frame of reference. I work a lot with municipal employees. I can often be found talking about how things like wastewater treatment plants can also be viewed as energy factories. For example, treatment plants with excess anaerobic digestion capacity can use this capacity to make fuel from a wide range of feedstocks.
This is clean and green energy produced with existing technology and infrastructure at a very reasonable cost. But it requires working with people who manage these alternative feedstocks – not the normal purview of a municipal employee. To make this happen, you have to follow up. Even if you have nothing to say, you have to say something so that your potential new customer knows that you are still alive.
I realize that this is not in the standard job description for a municipal employee, or for many types of employees. However, this is critical to doing things differently. There is often a good deal of trepidation about doing things differently. A normal reaction is wondering why it can’t work or doesn’t need to work. That doesn’t get a whole lot accomplished.
So make that call and even say thank you sometimes. Think of how pleasant it is when you are met with a courteous response where you don’t expect it, think of what is at stake and how much you alone can accomplish. Realize that this is a stretch for the other guy too. Realize that, as Bogart said in Casablanca, “This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” And while Bogart helped to save the world from Nazi oppression, you can help save the world, period.
Sally Brown – Research Associate Professor at the University of Washington in Seattle – is a member of BioCycle’s Editorial Board, and will be authoring this regular column on the connections of composting, organics recycling and renewable energy to climate change. E-mail Dr. Brown at

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