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The Green Life: Mr. Green's 10 Commandments for Eco-Evangelists

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November 14, 2013

Mr. Green's 10 Commandments for Eco-Evangelists

Mr. Green is Bob SchildgenHey Mr. Green,

How do I encourage people to live more eco-friendly (e.g. drive less, avoid disposable products, raise awareness of the hazards of industrialized farming) without offending them?

Patty, in Carbondale, Illinois

After being Mr. Green for nine years, I’ve enjoyed a bit of success in fostering eco-friendliness, though I can’t claim to have mended relationships and saved marriages like those famous Anns and Abbies. Nor do I take credit for last year’s 3.8 percent decrease in carbon emissions. (In any case, that dip was probably more the result of good weather and bad economy, because it’s already climbed back up 2.6 percent this year.)

So, in light of this considerable experience in eco-friending, here are my 10 Commandments for Environmental Evangelists:

1. Walk the talk: If you actually take green actions yourself, it’s a lot easier to get others to listen up. Being Mr. Green, I gotta be tuned in to this. Example: One day I’m in the back yard, hanging out the laundry. So strange has this custom become, that my neighbor asks me what I’m doing. “Well, now, if I don’t make a convincing display of solar drying, somebody could bust me and tell the world I’m a closet energy-waster. And anyhow,” I add, “with all the fuss about vitamin D deficiency these days, a few minutes outside hanging up the clothes might be healthy."

2. Keep it casual: Most people don’t like to be preached at or talked down to, whether from a pulpit or Prius. That’s maybe why FDR’s fireside chats worked. If you start going all apoplectic and apocalyptic over, say, global warming, people will tune you out, and rudely remark that your hot air is the cause of that phenomenon.

3. Make it fun: Everybody but the most authoritarian bores enjoy a bit of Robin Hood–like behavior. Explain how you can get a kick out of beating the system by creating your own nontoxic cleaning materials or consuming less energy.

4. Be humorous:  Present your case with humor, and even a bit of self-ridicule. There’s no bigger turn-off than the self-righteous, earnest tone that bedevils much environmental discourse. I learned this when harping at my kids to turn out the lights. It wasn’t till I started to make fun of my own uptight approach that they listened.

5. Follow the money: Who doesn’t like to save money? In any discussion about the environment, casually mention how much money can be saved by some environmentally friendly practices, without harping about the moral superiority of living lightly on the earth. Examples: Tell ’em about tax credits for solar energy, or how many dollars you saved on gas when you slowed down from 80 to 60.

6. Get your facts straight: Back up your comments with facts. Example: To make that bit about saving money on gas convincing, you can keep a record, or cheat and use information online, like at fueleconomy.gov where you’ll discover that every 5 miles per hour over 50 mph will cost you an extra 25 cents in gasoline, because your mileage could drop by 25 percent or more.

7. Don’t overstate your case: Exaggerating the effects of any supposedly eco-friendly behavior can flip a potential convert into a hardened skeptic. Example: Thanks to a special Sierra Club program, I had solar electric panels installed last spring. Now some solar users are inclined to sit back—or climb onto their roofs—and get all smug about their “liberation” from the grid. (There’s maybe even a streak of the right-wing survivalist in these guys.) My strategy, however, is remind people that solar is no miracle, and it will probably take 15 years for my system to pay for itself. This also gives me an opening to say, “First I had to cut our use to the bone just to afford those panels.”

8. Match environment to individual interests: If somebody is into animal rights, point out that environmentalists have been battling factory-style livestock feeding operations for years, because of the pollution they cause. If somebody is religious, casually note that many churches and synagogues are now concerned with environmental ethics and stewardship of creation. If they show interest, point them to the National Religious Partnership for the Environment.

9. Keep it as human as humanly possible: You’ll always have your naysayers and chronic grumps who simply don’t give a damn about the natural world, its teeming Web of life, its magnificent and mysterious flora and fauna, or its breathtaking landscapes, and all the other wonders celebrated by Romantic poets and environmental rhapsodizers. However, if, say somebody is deeply concerned about the cost of regulating pollution, ask them if they know that the savings in health care would offset the cost, a question that the EPA is required to examine in proposing a regulation. Or, if somebody has had had a serious bout with an infection, it helps to remind them that routine feeding of antibiotics to livestock is suspected of producing super-germs that resist antibiotics.

10. Play to pride of place: Many people who don’t identify as environmentalists nevertheless enjoy our many national and state parks and wildlife refuges. It is useful to remind them that these treasures did not always exist and that some were deeply threatened before being rescued by the environmental movement. This is why other nations consider the U.S. park system to be one of America’s greatest ideas.

11th commandment: Read my columns and blogs, um, religiously. Bob Schildgen

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 --illustration by Little Friends of Printmaking

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