Environmental Fatigue


To paraphrase a point that Professor George Rolfe made in a class last year; part of the reason that environmentalists fail to persuade large groups of people is that they rely upon shame as a motivated factor, and we are a shameless society. To add to this point, people do not appreciate being lectured to, myself included, and all too often this is the approach that environmentalists take. In my opinion, it is why, for example, Seattle quickly tired of Mayor McGinn’s leadership style. He governed as an activist, not as a leader of a multitude of people.
I think this notion is supported in Chapter 9 of this week’s readings, although clearly not exactly the same. But at the heart of Professor Rolfe’s assertion, and the heart of what is being conveyed in Chapter 9, is that real change is going to need to have popular support. The question is how will this popular support be obtained? The fact that the majority of Americans don’t believe that climate change is real, and caused mostly by humans, because it was cold yesterday, shows both a failure of our science curriculum and a general failure for the environmental movement to make headway with the public through its messaging. The WWF reading referenced above makes the point that societies and individuals that tend to be motivated by more extrinsic values—such as financial wealth, power or prestige—are less likely to be concerned with environmental concerns, and behave accordingly. The Shelton Group, in a marketing strategy, segmented the population by different worldviews and belief systems, and related these to their reception to green initiatives.
The conclusion is simple, but hard to implement. The environment movement is largely populated by intrinsically motivated people, people motivated by social equity and community norms—but Americans are largely extrinsically motivated individualistic people. To date, there has not been great progress in messaging to the “what’s in it for me?” individualistic half of the population from the other half that is motivated by shame and social equity. But there are signs of change, developers, the most ego driven of them all, are beginning to come around to green building. To be the most green has been turned into a source of boastful pride among some in Seattle’s development community, and that can move the industry. Now if there were a way to tie environmentalism to Joe American Public’s ego, maybe there would be some more movement towards making the most sustainable choices.


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