The gist: Americans say that they care about the environment, yet even the “greenest” Americans hesitate to call themselves environmentalists—and they don’t get involved with green issues nearly as much as one might expect.

Research by the Social Capital Project helps us understand how the environment fits into people’s broader worldviews and the findings give us guidelines for talking about important policy in ways that build interest and support. The Social Capital Project Roadmap identifies five barriers that keep Americans, even some with the strongest environmental values, from getting involved with environmental issues.

Below, we outline the barriers and then detail four strategies for overcoming them—bringing people’s hidden “green identities” to the surface.

Five Barriers to Environmental Engagement

  1. Environmental Sainthood. Somewhat revered by the most eco-minded Americans, environmentalists are chastised by others for their blind dedication. Real or not, the perception that environmentalists are willing to sacrifice all self-interest to save the earth sets an unattainable standard. Many people will take simple steps such as recycling, but beyond that, they throw up their hands because they feel that then can never be green enough.
  2. Environmental Elitism. Having the time and money to be green seems out of reach for many. The cost premiums often associated with eco-friendly choices, as well as the stereotype of environmentalists as white, urban professional elites, turns off many people. Ironically, income and race are not the strongest determinants of environmental concern, there are Americans in at all income levels and of all races who believe that living in a clean environment, having access to the outdoors, and eating healthy food shouldn’t be a luxury.
  3. Environmental Fatalism. Having a sense that something can be done about the environment and that individuals can help effect that change makes all the difference in engagement on environmental issues. Unfortunately, the majority of Americans don’t see the point in getting involved. Values such as social isolation, meaningless life and future, civic disengagement, and ecological fatalism dominate American culture overall and have done so since the early 1990s. This is particularly true with younger Americans, who generally distrust any kind of institution and the political process.
  4. Environmental Cognition. Our brains are wired to process information that conveys a simple cause and effect. But the fundamental interconnectedness of environmental issues makes direct cause and effect difficult to ascertain. It doesn’t help that environmental professionals communicate at an expert level, often failing to make the connections between the environment and the issues people care most about—their jobs, their health, and their families. The groups with the highest education levels have the highest levels of ecological concern, but even they want simple answers to environmental challenges.
  5. Environmental Overload. The public, for the most part, finds environmental issues overwhelming. They can’t determine which issues are most important, can’t tell environmental groups and other actors apart, and can’t decide how best to respond. Without a compelling vision of what can be done, problems can seem overwhelming and solutions inadequate.

The Flashcard: Recommended Strategies for Overcoming Barriers to Environmental Engagement

STRATEGY 1: A friendly, new “green” identity.

For many, ‘environmentalist’ is not an appealing identity. Environmentalism is often seen as extremist or out of reach. Tap identities that people do relate to.

Redefine what it means to care about the environment. It is now seen as extremist or out of reach.

  • Use non-expert language and focus on the values that environmental campaigns stand for, not the technical details. Images associated with ideas mean a lot. Empty, isolated landscapes or presenting people as victims of environmental harm doesn’t connect with most people.
  • Bring a range of perspectives and constituencies into environmental campaigns. Consider how multiple issues and stakeholders intersect with environmental issues.
  • Don’t make people feel guilty about their impact on the environment. Don’t rely on scare tactics of doom and gloom either. Tales need to be told about how people can be part of the solution to man-made environmental problems.

STRATEGY 2: It’s about all of us.

Make environmental measures concrete by showing (not telling) how families directly experience the benefits.

The environment has become personal. Illustrate the interconnectedness of environmental issues.

  • Illustrate how environmental issues connect with each other and to daily life. Don’t assume that people understand why it is important to protect a particular natural resource or endangered species. Make the connections obvious.
  • Demonstrate tangible improvements to people’s lives as a result of environmental protection measures. The need to address environmental problems often seems abstract and less immediate than other concerns, such as the economy or health issues. Make connections. Make issues concrete, as something that people experience directly.
  • Collaborate with partners who represent the full range of impacts environmental issues can have, such as economic, health and social justice concerns. Consider the stakeholders’ entire set of interests—geographic, cultural, and economic.

STRATEGY 3: Small steps toward the big picture.

Build on personal actions—green consumer choices and attitudes—to focus attention on systemic change.

Leverage personal actions and turn them into collective action. Make the connection between daily life-style choices and larger systemic issues, such as biodiversity and climate change.

  • Assess which lifestyle actions would have larger political, social, and economic impacts if they were focused and added up. People don’t want fifty choices to save the environment. They want to know the one or two things they can do.
  • Provide feedback mechanisms for engagement. What are the results of actions the public takes?
  • Rather than change behavior through increasing knowledge, tap into existing environmental attitudes, emotions and beliefs. Provide regular prompts and encouragement that promote greater engagement over time.

STRATEGY 4: Where do I fit in?

Establish a sense of community and purpose by avoiding policy-speak and by creating environmental narratives based on shared values.

Fill people’s need for social connectedness and a sense of purpose in life as a way to drive engagement on the environment.

  • Create environmental narratives based on values, not issues, that connect to everyday challenges that people face.
  • Solve environmental problems in a way that also overcomes social isolation and other fatalistic values by looking for ways to build community and addressing issues such as poverty and job creation at the same time.
  • Give people a large role in creating change. Writing checks and letters is important, but young people in particular want more of a hand in the action. The use of social media in conjunction with grassroots organizing delivers more of an impact.
May 1, 2010