Language of the Disconnect
Environmental advocates are generally smart, committed, passionate, devoted to their particular causes and, unfortunately, terrible communicators. This is a problem because when it comes to politics, communication is everything. If environmental issues are going to have an impact in the political process, they need to be communicated in a clear, concise and effective manner or they will be inconsequential in the final analysis. The environmental community is behind the curve in disseminating their messages in a politically savvy manner and the result is a disconnect with the broader electorate.
Why is this an issue? The answer is complex and lies partially with the personality and character of environmental advocates, partially with the nature of the public at-large and partially with the media world we live in today. No matter what the cause, the inability to connect voters with environmental issues is a problem. Politicians and policy makers respond to influence. If environmental groups want to have political leaders respond to their issues, they need to establish influence with the voting public. The environmental message needs to resonate with voters. Whether it is put in terms of public health, protection of resources, recreational opportunities, or any of the other important environmental issues, the environmental narrative should have broad appeal. The environmental message is a good one and policy success is important to our future. Communication of the message is the first and most important step towards wielding the political weight that these issues warrant.
The first part of the analysis is to look at the approach that many environmentalists take in addressing their concerns. Environmental advocates are very good at speaking to other environmentalists. They are not as good when speaking to “outsiders”. They are motivated by an earnest and sincere belief in their cause. However, there is an almost evangelical zeal among a great many members of the environmental community that comes with that ‘true believer” mentality. They are right, their cause is just and that is the end of the story. Whether spoken or implicit, there is an underlying impression that environmentalists feel that nobody cares about the planet and it’s future as much as they do. There is a lack of ability, or willingness, to see the world beyond the environmentalists’ universe. In the end, they would rather be right than effective.
The narrow demographics that characterize the modern American environmental movement are partly at the root of the communications gap. The environmental community is dominated by well-educated suburbanites and the nature of the messages emanating from the environmental sector reflect that to a large degree. We live in a complex and diverse society and, as a whole, environmental interests do not mirror the broad spectrum of the population. That lack of diversity doesn’t just extend to racial and ethnic diversity, but to political, economic and age diversity as well. The combination of certitude and narrow perspective manifests itself in messaging that misses the mark when it comes to appealing to a wide audience.
There is a broad perception that environmentalists are elitist snobs. They are seen as people who are never satisfied with any achievement or accomplishment unless it is done their way; that they will get 90% of what they want and complain about the 10% they didn’t get. Environmentalists have been portrayed as caring more about trees or animals than people. These views may be somewhat harsh, but they have also been earned. Before you say, “that’s not me”, realize that this idea did not materialize from thin air. Anyone failing to recognize that this has become a widely accepted assessment of environmental advocates, and that this take on the messengers of the environmental cause taints the message, proceeds at their own peril. The first order of business must be changing this perspective.
We can debate the fallacy of ad hominem attacks all we want. The fact remains that people, especially in the political realm, respond to them. The inability of environmental groups to build coalitions that include urban, rural and conservative members who have a shared concern for the environment, even though it may be based upon very different criteria or motivations, is a serious problem. All the good intentions in the world are meaningless when the message is subject to collateral attack. The insular nature of the modern American environmental movement has created a vulnerability to this type of assault. It doesn’t matter if it is right or wrong, it exists and needs to be addressed.
The communications failure of the environmental movement has as much to do with the message as it does about the messenger. The second level of analysis needs to be the manner in which the environmental message is crafted. Environmentalists like to talk about their issues in technical terms or in a way that matters primarily to them. The value of the environmental message can be diluted or masked by the language with which it is communicated. Often, the environmental message is couched in either specialized jargon or presented in a manner that fails to connect with average people. When an environmental message is communicated in an esoteric manner its recognized importance is diminished. Issues delivered with an emphasis on TMDL’s or Parts per Million get lost in today’s communication overload. Likewise, when impacts of actions are described in terms of threatened or endangered species or habitat loss, the direct impact to the human population as a whole is lost, even though we know that there are costs to society that result from damage to the world’s ecosystem. It just doesn’t register with most people.
Environmental issues need to be communicated in terms that reach the broadest possible demographic and need not be directed at other environmentalists. Emphasis should be placed on “how this affects you”. The more personal connections that can be made between environmental policies and individuals, the better received and more effective the message will be. The ultimate goal is not to speak to other environmentalists, but to a much larger segment of the population. Environmentalists need to learn to speak in plain terms and in a narrative that demonstrates the real consequences of bad environmental policies in a way that people can identify with.
An important concept to remember is that everyone is drawn to environmental issues for different reasons. They may not view environmental issues with the same priority as advocates. Beyond motivations, there will also be a myriad of different factors that personalize a particular issue in a different way for different people. Judgement of the motivations of potential allies is of little value. Finding the ways to connect the message with as broad an audience as possible is the key element of expanding influence. Protecting resources and the environment is as much about safeguarding them from the excesses of modern society as it is about conserving them for the use, enjoyment and benefit of people. Finding ways to establish the value of the environment, both spiritual and economic, for the broadest possible audience is essential in order for environmentalists to become both effective communicators and an important political force.
It may be a concern for future generations. It may be as personal as a parent’s worry about their own children. It may be a sense of civic responsibility or even a religious belief in being a good steward of God’s creation. Individual motivations aren’t important beyond understanding that they are a point to establish contact. Clean air and clean drinking water have always been issues of common interest, but there is so much more. It may be an urban mother’s anxiety over her child’s asthma. A fisherman worried about water quality and habitat. It can be a hiker, a hunter, a sailing enthusiast or someone who lives near a toxic waste site or industrial facility. There are literally hundreds of different issues that matter to individuals that seem disparate but share a common theme of environmental protection. Understanding that diverse body of seemingly unrelated interest groups and finding ways to bring them together on environmental issues is a fundamental element for success.
Our methods of communication have changed dramatically in the past 10 years and the environmental movement has had mixed results in adapting to the changing landscape. Environmental issues are complex and don’t easily lend themselves to simplified methods of communication. Additionally, environmental advocates tend to view writing or speaking about these issues as an opportunity to prove their superior grasp of the subject. There is sense that environmental advocates tend to talk down to “outsiders”. Altering the style and form of the environmental message to match the available and most widely used means of communication is a challenge, as is crafting that message in a way that connects on a personal and human level.
The attention span of people has shortened. Our methods of disseminating information have gone from news stories to sound bites to e-mails and finally to text messages and tweets. The world hasn’t gotten any less complicated. Reducing involved concepts to 140 characters or less isn’t necessarily the answer. Certainly mastering the digital world of communications and social media is important. Getting your message through in a crowded media landscape is not an easy task. Something has to set your message apart from the many others that are out there clamoring for attention. However, this is not a call for a “dumbed down” message disseminated with more blogs, tweets, YouTube videos or Facebook pages. Rather, finding a way to use modern media to grab the intellectual attention of an intended audience and draw them into a deeper exploration of issues should be the goal.
What has become lost is the art of personal communications. We talk at or past each other with little or no human connection. This has greater implications when the intent is to try to build coalitions with groups that may not share common political views on issues other than the environment. Trust is an essential part of building relationships. In an increasingly partisan world where people choose their information sources based on what they want to hear, this may seem like an impossible assignment. However, on the positive side, only the most hard-core anti-environmentalists will believe that there is a future in squandering our natural capital. Reaching across political divides to form bonds with a diverse set of people may be difficult, but it may be our only path to salvation.
Protecting our natural resources is important for the environmental, social and economic well-being of our society. That is a message that can and must resonate with a wider audience. If you follow the rule that good policy makes good politics, the path to political influence is there. Environmentalist just need to learn to use the communication methods available to reach people in a way that will allow them to bring themselves on-board with supporting pro-environmental policies because they see the wisdom and benefit of responsible action. Communication has to be made in a personal and approachable manner that connects with people in a way that the broadest possible spectrum of people can understand. Political clout will follow as a consequence.
In The End
This assessment of the environmental community may seem severe. However, the proof is in the results, or more accurately the lack of them. There are a lot of reasons why environmental issues aren’t carrying the political weight they should. The failure to adequately communicate the important message that our political leaders need to enact and follow responsible environmental policies is at the top of the list. The best way to build coalitions and political power is to do so in a non-political way. Establishing areas of agreement and common ground because it’s the right thing to do is where this effort has to start. Someone has to be willing to take the first step towards building the bridges necessary to gain consensus. If not, we will spend election cycle after election cycle staring across the aisle at people who share common interests but just can’t get past other political differences to address them.
There is a real “I believe in science” element to this approach. That goes as much for trusting that following good sound principles will yield positive results in the end as it does for believing that reason and fact will eventually win the day. In the face of the political nonsense that we see every day this may seem like a tremendous leap of faith. However, the elements of success are all there, they just need to be put together in the right way. This evaluation of environmentalists is hard because it has to be. The environmental community needs to raise its level of performance in the political arena by seizing the opportunities that are there. The forces that benefit from exploiting our resources and degrading the environment have certainly learned to communicate in a politically effective manner. If the environmental community does not learn to match these skills there will be consequences. Failure is not an option.