Practice? Preach? Both?

Written by erin


A few of our recent blog posts have ignited micro-firestorms among our readers. We are thrilled to have readers with such diversity of opinion and even more gratified that they choose to spend time making comments. We have pretty thick skins here at TerraPass and we take sharp criticisms as heartfelt expressions rather than personal attacks, so keep ’em coming.

The firestorms make me wonder, though, about the effectiveness of strident advocacy as a tool for bringing about a greater sense of stewardship across the general population. At the American Psychological Association’s meeting earlier this month, several papers were presented which examined links between “sustainable” behavior patterns and various external stimuli. USA Today summarized some of this research here.

One study in particular examined the effect of negative feedback on people’s inclination to take action later on. They used an ecological footprint calculator jury-rigged to provide distinctly negative or positive results, then asked people to write a letter on any topic at all, to a politician.

Interestingly, people who entered the study with environmental values were more likely to take positive action after receiving negative feedback about their practices than if they received positive feedback; if they were told their footprint didn’t look so good, they wanted to take action. Conversely, the less-environmentally inclined did just the opposite. Negative feedback made them react negatively, positive feedback inspired positive action.

Since our blog readers tend to be environmentally inclined, it’s no surprise we see a lot of criticism in our blog comments; our readers are trying to inspire action, and apparently criticism works for people like us.

But the same criticisms may have an opposite effect on the sizable population that isn’t already standing in the choirbox. Are we doing ourselves a disservice with our bumper stickers, our environmental license plates, our occasionally self-righteous attitudes, our not-so-subtle jabs that scream, “Whatever you’re doing, it’s not enough!”

We have a big mountain to move here. Lots of behaviors need to change. Personally, I try not to proselytize too much, at least with adults. In my spare time, I work with a local non-profit which provides hands-on environmental education to grade-school kids, and at that age, we don’t need hard-core advocacy: they believe what we teach them. Maybe it isn’t enough, but I do sleep well at night.

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