Thoughts on Two Common Environmental Outreach Strategies

While I am a believer that any outreach at all is better than none and that all sorts have their appropriate places, I want to throw my controversial two-cents out there and say: Not all outreach is created equal. I think a lot of it misses its mark

Here are two common outreach tactics that I feel should be reconsidered...

Preaching to the Choir
When people have a message to share, they sometimes share it with those who are already interested. I don’t blame you. Under those circumstances, it’s easier to make contacts and set up education events. It’s safer – there’s less chance of being challenged or confronted in an environment that is already pre-disposed to be on your side. It’s more fun. You get to make new buddies and networking contacts that share similar interests. You can laugh over bowls of organic, locavore fruit punch and wonder at the diversity of the earth together.

I’m not knocking this. We all know how enriching it is to network within our professions and fields of interest. It can be deeply inspiring or very helpfully educational; these people can help us overcome barriers and solve problems we are working on; these networking opportunities can enrich our lives and our work in important ways. If this is your goal, please, keep on doing it.

But if your goal is something like, oh, trying to encourage widespread recycling among the general populace, you will probably not get that out of endless meetings with environmental nonprofits and activist organizations, with conservationists and environmental professionals. It is highly likely that those people ALREADY recycle. And while they may have ideas on how to improve your project, you’re not likely to earn converts. Unless you’ve learned something groundbreaking, it’s possible that these people already know what you are trying to teach them.

I frequently see organizations reaching out only to their members or to similar organizations, and I sometimes wonder what this is accomplishing. To outward observation it looks like social hour.

Teaching Mostly to Children
This is one of my pet peeves, so I’ve saved it for last. I know it’s blasphemous for me to say so. I know it is a time-honored tradition of the environmental movement. And I can tell you that environmental outreach to children made a heavy impact on my life – I mean, look where I am today. “Hi, I’m an environmental professional and a former Captain Planet junkie. Fern Gully made me all teary-eyed. I always read the children’s environmental pamphlet they used to hand out in Target.” It’s true. I listened. It worked. I grew up to participate in children’s outreach just because it made such a big difference to me.

I know the practicing theories, and in their own way, they stand up, and they sometimes work. Let’s examine these:

Children are mold-able, and learn quickly. True.
Habits started young can last a lifetime. True.
Children can nag their parents and spread the information to the adults. True.
And one day, those awesome kids will be awesome adults who control the world. Very true.

So what is my problem?

Well, I have a few.

-Not all of the information being presented to children is information that they’re likely to care about. For example - children are not likely to care about vehicle exhaust, and they’re not likely to do anything about it. They don’t drive cars, and they won’t for several years. Some kids will be interested, but for most, this type of information is not going to soak in.

-Teaching children about something like vehicle exhaust or light bulb purchases JUST so that they will go home and nag their parents is a little bit of a stretch, don’t you think? I mean, I nagged my parents about stuff, just like I was taught. Did you? How did it work out for you? I succeeded on ONE thing: I got my Dad to start buckling his seat belt. My parents could not care less about buying organic or going to the farmer’s market or recycling… or at least, they were not about to care just because their nine-year-old child had feelings about it. Because their nine-year-old did not pay the bills, and was not an adult. Most adults do what they do for a reason, and are pretty confident that they’re smarter than their kids. Maybe children nagging adults is a vehicle for change in some families. It did not work in mine.

There’s also this: As an adult, how irritating is that? Do you send your kid to school just so the teacher can tell the kid to go home and nag you about your lifestyle?

But let’s think about the effectiveness of this tactic a little bit more. You teach information, aimed at adults, to a class of kids. Out of those kids, not all of them will latch onto the information. And out of those who do, fewer still will tell their parents about it. And out of those parents, how many of them are persuaded to act? I think you get my point here. By the time your message reaches its target audience, it’s been diluted significantly. It’s possible that none of the kids will tell Mom, or that no Moms will take your advice. If you want to reach adults, you’re more likely to do so if you (*gasp*) talk to adults. But seriously, talking strictly efficiency, using this method is a lot of wasted energy, isn't it? It's like an incandescent bulb, whereas going to the adults in the first place is the CFL.

-If you want change now, kids are not going to make it. (Well, most kids. Some children are exceptional.) Generally speaking, a seed you plant for societal change in a child is not going to blossom for another 20+ years, when that kid enters the work force. If there’s an environmental emergency, and you need to make changes that will take place now (or soonish), influencing children can only help you so much. Let me paint an analogy here. If it’s raining and you want to stay dry, it is better to find an umbrella than to plant a sapling and stand next to it for 20 years until it can shelter you.

 And Then...
I’m going to go out on a limb with these estimates and say that out of all environmental education I observe, 30% is “preaching to the choir.”  60% is teaching only for children (and for some reason, 90% of that happens in the fifth grade. Apparently there is something magical about the fifth grade and environmental education that I’m not aware of). That leaves only 10% of outreach efforts that have the potential to make real, measurable, near-term results.

I repeat, I do not think the common methods of outreach are fruitless. Those are important, too, and they’ve played big roles in my life. But I do feel that a disproportionate amount of effort is spent here. I don’t know about you guys, but I don’t want to wait another 20-30 years for our fifth graders to grow up and solve my problems. 

The moral of this story is: when doing public outreach, don’t just take the path most followed.  Carefully consider what you want to accomplish and who you want to reach. Figure out how to make that happen. Think outside the box, reach outside the comfort zone, and find new ways to get it done.

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