Conveying an Appropriate Sense of Urgency

One of my criticisms of the mainstream environmental movement has been that people’s everyday living choices often fail to convey a level of urgency that matches the level of urgency expressed in their petitions and protests.

When I first started getting into activism (about 25 years ago, right after moving from Tokyo to Austin), I was surprised to find that most of the other people at the meetings and protests were making lifestyle choices that undermined the very causes we were claiming to stand for.

We protested sprawl development and the relentless march of asphalt, yet most people drove to the meetings, and often in big cars. We protested fossil-fuel dependency and called on the government to “do something,” yet a lot of people lived in big houses equipped with the full arsenal of energy-hogging USAmerican conveniences (clothes dryer, air conditioning, water heater and so on). We petitioned for preservation of wildlife habitat, yet a lot of people kept big lawns.

How could we blame non-environmentalists for living that same way? At least they were acting in accordance with their beliefs!

I have to wonder how much further along we’d be if more of the people who believed there was a state of environmental urgency, had been acting on that belief more. We’d surely have expanded our influence enormously.

No crying over spilt milk; just a good thing to notice from now on. I do notice a lot more people these days going around with their own reusable cups, eating utensils, shopping bags. And more people choosing to reduce their household footprint in various ways, such as downsizing and going car-free or car-lite. More people telecommuting; more people buying local.

On the power of personal daily actions, and the importance of conveying a sense of urgency, I recommend this article in Wired magazine by Leor Hackel and Gregg Sparkman.

Here are just a few tiny bites to tempt your appetite (but please do treat yourself to the whole article):

“As in previous cultural shifts—like those around smoking or drunk driving—more people will need to see fossil fuels as an extreme danger to human health and safety. A powerful way to spread this attitude is to act like it in our own lives, minimizing the fossil fuels we burn.”

“Humans are social animals, and we use social cues to recognize emergencies. People don’t spring into action just because they see smoke; they spring into action because they see others rushing in with water. The same principle applies to personal actions on climate change.”

“Individual acts of conservation—alongside intense political engagement—are what signal an emergency to those around us, which will set larger changes in motion. … With each step, you communicate an emergency that needs all hands on deck.”