I’m in the business of trying to get people to see that we could be happier, healthier and more secure with some adjustments to how we run our country and our lives. How we live our lives affects how we run our country. How we run our country affects how we live our lives. This is why I believe that both personal and collective action, both lifestyle changes and the advocacy for regulatory change, are important to the activist.
I guess that’s what I am now, kind of. I used to be a writer. I’m still a writer, but I seem to have become an activist.
Anyway, what I’m an activist for is promoting human health, happiness and security, especially as affected by the resources we suck up and the pollutants we pump out. This is a fancy way of saying I’m an environmental activist, except that by saying human health, happiness and security, I’m framing it terms that a wider audience cares about.
In part, for my thinking in this area, I have the authors and thinkers Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger to thank. If you care about, ahem, environmentalism and/or politics and/or promoting any sort of social message to the public, you should read their book Breakthrough: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility. If you don’t have the time or the attention span, you can read an article about them and their book in Wired.
If you don’t even have the time or the attention span for that, then I’ve boiled down one of their central messages to one tiny sentence: Instead of trying to convince people that your issue is important to them, you should be trying to convince them that their issue is important to you. In other words, if the public supports you, you will give them something of concern to them in return.
So, for example, let’s say you have a wonderful vision of how, 20 years from now the waterways around your major city could be swimmable–free of poop and toxins. Part of what you need to do for that is keep storm water out of the sewers and to do that you need more trees on the street to absorb the water before it gets to the sewers.
Now how do you get the local PTA to support green streets at the community board hearing? You don’t try to bash them over the head by telling them how they should care about water quality. You show them studies that show that kids who have more trees on their streets are less likely to suffer from ADHD and perform better in school. If they support you, in other words, you will give them something of concern to them in return.
This is no revolution in thought. Everyone knows that you should speak in the language of your audience.
To this point Nordhaus and Shellenberger add the fact that language like “saving the planet” comes from the environmental movement of the 1970s which was born in times when the people the United States felt very secure and able to turn their attention to higher order needs like meaning and fulfillment.
People in the US are now richer, Nordhaus and Shellenberger say, but their wealth is more provisional. The rise of contract work and the decline of lifetime careers mean that people are more concerned with the lower order needs like security. Saving the planet does not appeal to people who are busy saving themselves.
So what Nordhaus and Shellenberger say is that we should talk to the people in the language of the times which, for now, means not saving the planet but saving ourselves. Talking about green jobs, for example, is smart. And that is why, starting off this post, I don’t say I’m in the business of environmentalism. I’m in the business of the health, happiness and security of human beings.
Because you know what? However you parse it, it’s the same thing.