Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Should We Be In The Business Of Changing People's Minds?

I honestly am not sure.

I'm not a big fan of proselytizing, in general. I dislike smug environmentalists, and I try not to be a Judgey McJudgerson. I am all too aware of my own failings as both an environmentalist and a human being. (To wit, at this moment, I am sitting with my back against the radiator, not because I need the heat per se, but because it's loosening the knots in my back.)

This is why I like to participate in other people's challenges, but I've only ever issued one small challenge. I'm just not comfortable with that stuff. My general philosophy is kind of: I do what I'm doing for me, and if others follow, they follow. If they don't, they don't.

On the other hand, I do have a blog. So obviously I'm not just quietly sitting in my room eating my sad organic apple and spinach salad. I guess the thing is, I really don't know.

I write this all because of a conversation Melinda and I had recently. She was voicing her frustration at all the people who didn't participate in Earth Hour, and talked about how she sometimes feels isolated by trying to live an environmentally conscious life when so many people around her don't seem to care about the environment at all.

I argued that just because people might not be concerned about reducing their individual footprint, that doesn't mean they don't care about the environment. It might mean that they don't think individual actions don't matter, and that ultimately we have to allow and accept a multiplicity of views on the matter.

Melinda contended that of the people who are not concerned about reducing their footprint, those who actually care about the environment, but simply don't think individual actions matter are probably a small minority. That we don't have time to waste, and while we should respect people's varied opinions, we shouldn't ACCEPT them. We need to work to change their minds.

Who's right in this little debate?

I don't know.

I actually think the percent of people who don't think individual actions matter is much larger, but who knows. Polls on climate change are notoriously topsy turvy, and you'll see one poll arguing that Americans really care about climate change! Followed by another poll stating that Americans doubt global warming is happening!!

And Melinda's right about us running out of time. Maybe we don't have time to deal with dissenters.

Except ... that feels ... wrong somehow.

I don't know. Maybe I'm trying so hard to be non-judgmental that I've gone too far to the other side. Maybe social stigmatization is an important component in changing society. Maybe there is a place for proselytizing. Certainly, I believe that governments should be paying more attention to climate change. If I think that it's okay to lobby governments, why isn't it okay to lobby people?

I just can't decide. What do you think?


Eco Yogini said...

this was an interesting post. I like how diplomatic you were about the entire point of view.
I do believe that for many people the environment and the lack of interest may stem from ignorance on why it's important and how it could affect them. As health concerns rise from the synergistic affects of synthetic chemicals bombarded in our lives it's essential that we recognize the importance and consequences pollution can have.
At the same time, I'm not one to go 'preaching' to others about what they should be doing. But I do like to share interesting books and knowledge on the matter and I vote to reflect my concerns.
Unlike religion, the environmental detriments will affect humans globally.
David Suzuki had a fantastic example of how views and morals are fluid and socially constructed: In the 1950's there were signs everywhere telling people 'Do Not Spit'... because it was socially acceptable to spit. On the floor, in the street, on the bus. Now, a mere few decades later there are no signs telling people not to spit... and spitting in public is no longer an issue. Instead of needing external pressure, social constructs deem it unacceptable to spit in public. Just like smoking is less acceptable.
One day, with spreading awareness and knowledge, dirtying the planet will become less socially acceptable. When someone does something that affects MY health and well-being I feel ok about commenting (i.e. second hand smoke).

ruchi said...

Right, Eco Yogini, and I think that the 'no spit' example is an example of social stigmatization. Certainly, I think that in certain areas, social stigmatization is a good thing. Like getting people to litter less. But should we be stigmatizing people who say buy lunch in a styrofoam container every day or don't bring their own coffee mug into work?

Joyce said...

I think perhaps partcipation in Eath Hour is not the true measure of one's envirnmental conscousness. We love basketball, and we watched basketball during that designated hour. So what? We are still riding our bikes all over the place, still hanging out the laundry, etc. I just got a paper from our power company telling me that our household uses 1/2 the electricity of the average household. Not trying to toot our own horn here, but Earth Hour is, honestly, not that important in the grand scheme of things. Long term changes in lifestyle are.

Farmer's Daughter said...

I've said it before and I'll say it again. I'm a role model for others (students, and just regular people). I'm not a "do as I say." I'm a "hey did you notice what' I'm doing and that it's easy and also helps the planet?" I'm not going to tell people to change, just hope that I'm a good example for them and will inspire them to change.

It's all these years dealing with students that gave me this perspective. That way, I feel my individual action can/will change people and better the environment, without all the worrying about changing them.

ruchi said...

Joyce, I completely agree about Earth Hour. Like I said to Melinda, a lot of environmentally minded people did not participate (including me!)


That way, I feel my individual action can/will change people and better the environment, without all the worrying about changing them.

That I think is an EXCELLENT perspective. I think I basically share your view, in that I do what I'm doing and people either follow or not.

Rosa said...

I don't think believing changes most people's actiosn that much, anyway - I know a lot of believers whose carbon footprint hasn't changed at all.

People change for lots of reasons - to save time, to save money, to be like their friends, just for curiosity's sake, because they like to make things, because it's easier.

I don't really care what people believe. I just care what they do, and only for actual actions, not the symbolic ones.

JessTrev said...

I actually think there are lots of people who care about the environment who could do more. Like myself, for instance. I am very much of the "work on my own self" mindset. I feel like I have plenty to do to change my own practices to be more in line with my beliefs. A version of "if you live in a glass house, don't throw stones" so to speak. Now, if someone *asks* me about how to do something, you can't shut me up! But no, I'm not that interested in trying to change someone's mind on this topic (except peripherally, if they read my blog, for instance, but I would warrant that many of the people reading my blog are as interested in living more sustainably as I am or more so). Changing a company's mind or trying to influence legislation? Sign me up.

Also? I think you can care a lot about the environment and still, for instance, buy coffee in a styrofoam cup. I overheard the guy at the green building store I was in for paint the other day explain it well for a customer who'd asked about a particular type of recycled glass tile (it was super expensive). The green building guy said, "Well, everyone has different priorities. For some people, it's all about energy conservation. So they will put all their dollars into appliances and insulation and lighting concerns. Someone else will care about sourcing of products. We all have to weigh off our choices." So the guy with the styrofoam cup may actually be working into the night every night figuring out answers to the climate situation (I live in DC). Who knows? Not my position to judge, and I agree with many who note that, for folks who have thought about the issues, just seeing the reusable mug is going to send the message.

Stephanie said...

Oddly, this reminds me of a comment made in Melinda's blog:

If you change yourself, there are sure to be others that follow. I agree with you and of your commenters: I really dislike proselytizers and won't do something like that myself. But I try to lower my impact as much as I can and I try even harder to gather the courage to explain why when asked. Or just hide what I'm doing. oops.

Anyway, my answer is no. I am not in the business of changing people's minds. I am in the business of influencing their minds so that they see what else they could be doing. :)

Melinda said...

Ruchi, interesting post.

I want to make very clear that I was not saying that people who did not participate in Earth Hour don't care. And I did not judge people for not participating, nor for not caring about their impact. Plus, as I write consistently, I don't think that individual changes are enough - and I certainly I don't begrudge others who feel the same. (Though I do feel individual changes are a good entry point.)

So, with that said...

The world is full of multi-national corporations, politicians, and others who are constantly working to change our viewpoints to sell us things and ideas. These are for their own benefit, and often to the detriment of society and the planet as a whole.

Non-profits, NGOs, churches, public health and safety organizations... they are doing the same thing, only they are helping spread awareness and inspire action that that they believe is beneficial to society and the planet as a whole. Each time you hear or read about a non-profit, it's because there was a social marketing campaign that worked hard to get you to read or hear about it. It doesn't happen on its own.

Whether we want to believe it or not, our worldviews are created largely by information we receive, ads we experience, stories we're told. So should we let our stories be told - and let our climate be changed - by the people (& corporations) who are only in it for their own gain, the people (& corporations) who don't give a whit about us or our shared planet? Or should we become part of the voice that tells our story, that helps preserve the world we live within?

I feel it's my duty as a citizen of the world to help make it a better place. That doesn't mean I'm doing it as a "proselytizing, smug environmentalist" - I hope you don't see me that way. That doesn't work - I think we all understand that. But as I have written before, we do this by meeting people where they are without judgment, inspiring others by doing things ourselves, becoming active in our communities, voting and taking part in politics, and harnessing each of our own individual talents for good.

For example... you participate in other people's challenges but you don't start challenges yourself. That's fine. But it is ok for others to hold those challenges (in which you participate), right? To bring together a group of people who are working to change their own lifestyles, so that they can learn from one another and support one another? That's ok, right?

Or are you really saying that I should do nothing, and let all suffering, greed, climate change, poverty, energy depletion, and this economic disaster go on as it is, and that I just sit idly by?

ruchi said...

Rosa, good point that beliefs don't necessarily turn into action. That's an important point.

Jess, thank you so much for that fantastic comment. I think you're absolutely right, and this is why I have some trepidation around proselytizing: people have different priorities. Someone might, say, drive an SUV but never fly. Someone else might use styrofoam cups, but might be working on an innovative way to make solar panels. Who knows. Thanks for your perspective.

Stephanie, thanks for directing me there. I appreciate it.

Melinda, thanks for your comment. Just to clarify, I want to make sure you realize that I don't think you are a smug, proselytizing environmentalist at all, at all, at all. So I'm sorry if I conveyed that because I really didn't mean to.

I think you make a lot of good points about how corporations influence people, and I think it's a fair point that we need something to combat that.

I guess, I think the difference for me, is between raising awareness and knowledge say, and actively trying to change people's minds.

To me, I have no issue raising awareness which is why I have a blog. I write about the environment to build awareness and so that if people choose to, they can learn how to live a little more environmentally.

Participating in challenges, again, is something that allows people who already hold certain beliefs to turn those beliefs into actions. So there again it is not so much about changing minds as it is about helping people who want to reduce their footprint (or whatever) to do so.

There's a line in the Gita (no I'm not religious, but it speaks to me) that essentially says that we should take actions without thinking about the result (but without resorting to inaction).

Until I became an environmentalist that never ever made sense to me. Now it does. And I think that's my philosophy. I blog, I try to build awareness. But I don't actively try to change minds. I am not thinking about the result. My philosophy is just to act and let whatever follows follow. I hope this makes sense.

OTOH, that is SO not my philosophy when it comes to government policies. ;) So maybe the truth is that I'm just not staking a lot on personal environmentalism.

In any case, I think you should do what you are so moved to do, absolutely. And again, I hope you didn't read my post as a criticism of you ... I really took our conversation to discuss an internal argument I'm having with myself, so I hope that came out.

Belinda said...

Honestly I think we need both.

Although some of us may not think much of him as a personal action environmentalist Al Gore through his "preaching" cause the biggest up swell of understanding about this issue, at least in Australia, that I have seen. Did it translate to mass change in society?

Well no. Societal change is slow except when people are confronted with a visible crisis containing obvious solutions. Unless we are available outside the cinema with a network of peers that will support the changes that these people might feel compelled to make we will loose most of them to "it's all too hard" or "I can't make enough difference anyway".

The problem that I find with most personal change people is that they are beavering away on their own and, apart from the on the internet, occasionally stick their head up to say "is there a network out here for me yet" rather than pro actively attempting to create one. Why when so many people have been making changes and learning from them does everyone still have to struggle along this path without local support?

Government is reactive not proactive. Unless there are people out there screaming about the need for change and a large majority of society doing all that they can to show that although they may not be screaming they too value these ideas and they are important enough to them that ignoring them will cause problems come election time Government will listen to those who are yelling louder.. and right now that is industry.

Sure Earth hour is a load of feel good malarkey but it could mean a lot more if we took participation as a way to start a conversation not just beforehand but after. What if someone was to letter drop every house that seemed to be participating inviting them to a local community meeting based on supporting people to make personal changes? As an individual we may be weak.. as part of community we get the chance to be powerful.

organicneedle said...

I think the problem with preaching is it will always come back to bite you in the rump. There is no person in the world who leads a perfectly green life. I think the best thing to do is to keep seeking and spreading information WITHOUT the judgment. Once people feel judged I think it turns them off to green changes, an "us against them" mentality instead of a "we're all in this together" type of thinking.

Lisa Nelsen-Woods said...

I like to lead by quiet example. I often think of a quip I heard in a buisness seminar ,"Never assume because it makes an ASS out of U and ME." That being the case, I'm not going to walk up to someone in a store parking lot and dog then out for having a cart full of plastic shopping bags because how do I know if they brought the bags from home for another reuse, got them for a reuse project, will put them in the store's recycling center on their next trip to the store, or let them fly away to be caught in trees when they get home. I don't.

From the outside, you'd never know that my house is the most energy efficient on the block because it looks like everyone elses. We save energy by changing habits and using items wisely. I'm all about reducing waste and creative reuse but you may not know that by just looking at me and my life because I do drive a car and occasionally I will buy packaged corn dogs to make for dinner. Although I do usually save the packaging & use it for something else. :)

I know that not everyone is as crafty or handy as me, so I don't think it's my place to "yell" at them if they don't do exactly what I do. But if you're interested, I'll show you how I do what I do or you can just laugh at what I do. Sometimes it's pretty funny.

That's what I try to do on my blog.

I think where it gets a bit much, is that there is a very vocal group of people who are of the damned if you do, damned if you don't school of environmentalism. They are the ones that will start out by saying, "if everyone changed to one CFL bulb, we'd save yadda, yadda..." and finish the conversation by saying "People think that just changing lightbulbs will do it! It won't you have to do these difficult things to make a differnce..." Personally I think it's folks like that that turn others off on environmentally friendly practises. Because if starting by doing one little thing (which will hopefully lead to other good practises) isn't good enough, then why do it at all?

Melinda said...


Well... You did ask "Who's right in this little debate?" So I assumed (ass out of u and me) that you meant to pit our 'arguments' against one another.

But it sounds a lot like it is a disagreement over semantics anyway. To me, "changing people's minds" is is an element of "raising awareness." And by raising awareness, we are changing the way people think. But I'm ok with that.

Dissenters as you call them are often unaware of the options. I have met a fair amount of people who once dissented regarding climate change, but now understand it more and so believe they need to do something about it. That is because people spent the time and energy to (respectfully) raise their awareness.

Proselytizing on the other hand doesn't usually change people's minds nor raise awareness. It often results in people turning the other way. So to me, that's something we should try hard not to do.

Amber said...

I know I'm entering into this discussion late, but I was in the midst of multiple tasks when I first read it and it is only now, in a quiet moment that I have had time to reflect...

While I do my best to try and keep the preaching to a minimum and avoid judgment or guilt inducing criticism of other people's actions, I do try to actively influence people, raise their awareness and change their minds.

And here is why: when I think of what the effects that the economic crisis, the climate crisis and the energy crisis will have on the billions of vulnerable people in the world, the issues become moral and ethical ones for me.

I'm not sure if these historical comparisons are appropriate, but in much the same way I hope that I would have spoken out against slavery or the holocaust, I speak out now.

For me the financial, environmental and energy issues are much more than lifestyle issues. They are human rights and social justice issues.

We have pushed billions of people to the edge of death.

Why aren't more of us working to change people's minds about this?

Rosa said...

Like I said, Amber - i'm more worried about people's actions than their beliefs.

So I work on convincing legislators and policy makers, starting small (my office, my park board, my city council - but going up to the federal senators & representatives, too). Because they can make the limits that guide other people's actions.

But the rest - you don't get a change of heart from words. People see how I live my life, they can ask if they want.

Anonymous said...

Haha, Judgey McJudgerson... loves it. And I have to say, I'm kind of on your side about not preaching to others or giving off any airs of self-righteousness. This whole business of "we don't have enough time to be understanding of others' mistakes" logic also sounds pretty ridiculous to me. The world we live in is full of regular people, and regular people are, sadly, inherently selfish and mostly apathetic. It's hard to know what to do, though... but maybe if we keep doing the best we can and keep talking about these issues often, it'll lead to more change than we ever thought it would.