Talking “Environmentalism” – Real People React (badly)

The other day, an acquaintance asked me for advice on communicating about environmental issues.  I had a speedy, rather negative reaction.

“First, NEVER, ever use the word ‘environmental,’ or anything related to that word.  Talk about the ISSUE – clean water, clean air, toxic chemicals, whatever.”

The immediate response was skepticism, and “Why?”

I guess I’ve sat in one too many social psychology-oriented trainings, sessions I’ve written about before.  Heading back to page 13 of my favorite summary of these ideas, “The Psychology of Sustainable Behavior,” it turns out that while some people proudly identify as environmentalists, “the word evokes an extreme and negative image for many: ‘hippy, tree-hugger, smelly, vegetarian, protester’ (Amel, Scott, Manning & Stinson, 2007).”

Nutty Environmentalist

Credit Christie Manning's presentation

And, as Manning continues,

This is not an image that most people associate with themselves. Thus, when an issue is labeled as something that “environmentalists” are advocating for, people then doubt that the issue is relevant or important to their own lives, no matter what this issue is. Some may even have an immediate contrary reaction (called reactance): “if it’s something that environmentalists are advocating for, then it must be something extreme that I disagree with.”

Looking for alternatives?  Manning suggests “concerned citizens” or “Minnesotans.” I look for specific nouns that the audience can relate to.  Here’s my own tip:  I often ask myself whether my parents could name a friend or acquaintance who fits the description.

Got any tips to add?