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Peter Karch: 2-pronged approach to engaging “The Masses”

Peter Karch wrote to the Alliance for Sustainable Communities-Lehigh Valley on Apr 12, 2012:

I recently had the opportunity to read your 2011 Sustainable Lehigh Valley and wanted to contribute my thoughts on the subject.

Actually I’ve been sitting on this letter for weeks now, fearing I would come across as being too pessimistic relative to other essay contributors and many of your supporters. While I admit I am indeed quite pessimistic about The Movement as it is being currently handled (as you will read), I am also very optimistic about how it can change, given my suggestions. Although I truly believe these suggestions will work as written, perhaps to others they will simply serve as a stimulus, or model, to begin looking at The Movement from a completely different perspective. I would be happy with that as well.

What I do know for certain is that the longer we wait, the worse the environment will become, the more the politicians will bend with the financial and political winds (which is usually minimal and only patronizing, hence insulting.) Lack of leadership tends to foster attitudes in people that foster further lack of leadership…sort of like how good a well-worn shoe feels… and the more entrenched people get, the harder it will be to change the situation. It is already approaching juggernaut proportions, as you well must know. My greatest fear is that soon we will reach a “critical mass” situation:

Convenience Means Passing The Buck

I believe bumper stickers say something significant about social thought, and as such, society should pay attention to them. Two have always impressed me: “I want what I want when I want it”, and, “Save the earth. Kill yourself”.

Surely each of us can find some lifestyle between those two extremes.

After over 40 years teaching the biological sciences, over 25 in the environmental sciences, it hurts me to have to admit this, but I truly believe the “environmental movement” is essentially dead. Any examples of it being significantly effective currently are, unfortunately, only seen among those who already believe in environmental sanity, i.e. The Choir. The general public, i.e. those whose actions will make the most significant dent in environmental degradation, i.e. the bulk of the 7+ billion people on earth, have no idea what’s happening environmentally, and if they do, they just don’t care about it relative to all the other issues they must wrestle with in daily life. To them, because of its apparent lack of immediacy, environmental issues are too esoteric to pay attention to.

I’ll bet membership in environmental organizations has stayed essentially the same over the years (correcting for population increases). I’ll bet “Sustainability” conventions cater to the “same” people that they did 5, 10…years ago (correcting for population increases). I’ll bet the “same” number of petitions are being written/signed today by the “same” people, as were written 5, 10…years ago (also correcting for population increases). I’ll bet those signing on, attending, writing….are essentially The CHOIR.

The Reason: those issues of concern to our national and international environmental organizations are too global in nature: population growth and its impact on natural resources, resource conservation, global warming, ozone, energy conservation and the Arctic Preserve, open land, clean water and air, agriculture and GM foods, urban reclamation, waste treatment and pollution, wetlands preservation, forest preservation, biodiversity, save the rhinos, dolphins, manatees, tigers, wolves…..the list is endless.

It is not that these issues aren’t important; of course they are. They are vitally important and I certainly applaud these organizations for everything they are, and have done, towards resolving them. Unfortunately, however, they are also so many “steps” removed from the everyday lives of everyday people that, as I said above, it is esoteric, too far in the future to worry about, hence: “…. just talk to me about how I am going to be inconvenienced. That’s all I care about now. We’ll worry about that other stuff later….”

The Movement hasn’t begun to hit home with, “…. that young man, driving home from Burger King, about to throw his burger wrapper out his car window…..” It is precisely “this” person, at this time, doing this exact event (and the billions of other people at each and every moment of all their collective lives, doing all those seemingly insignificant, “everyday” things (see list below), that contribute to environmental degradation and lack of sustainability that must be addressed……not the rhinos and elephants in Africa, and the Kirkland Warbler, and Spotted Owls, and whales, and manatees, and, and, and….

….And not only must we get to that man about to throw his hamburger wrapper out of his car window, but also:

  • People who leave their house lights on unnecessarily.
  • People who heat their homes inordinately warm instead of dressing properly for colder temperatures.
  • People who open/close (repeatedly) their refrigerators without pre-planning what they want to get out of it, or simply leave it open while they decide what they want to remove from it.
  • People who don’t plan their trips to the store to encompass multiple items.
  • People who use plastic/paper, instead of reusable cloth, shopping bags. (Cloth bags can be used at liquor stores, auto stores, discount stores…just about everywhere multiple items are purchased, not just supermarkets.)
  • People who drive solo to work instead of car-pooling with co-workers.
  • People who leave their cars running while in the store/at the filling station because they “need” the AC/or the heater to keep it cool/warm (appropriate season.)
  • People who allow the dishwasher/washing machine/clothes drier to run the full, manufacturer’s prescribed cycle. (Obviously manufacturers have “an agenda” that differs from reality.)
  • People who pre-wash dishes before putting them in the dishwasher.
  • People who use of “heat dry” cycle for dishes.
  • People who bleach their clothes.
  • People who have clean fetishes. How clean must things really be? Reality: How long does this “clean” last?
  • People who use bottled vs. tap water.
  • People who use paper toweling
  • People who use double layered toilet paper.
  • People who use a clothes drier instead of a clothes line.
  • People who use pesticides on their lawns.
  • People who cut their lawns excessively, or who use a gas-powered mower for a “city-sized lot”
  • People who use a gas powered blower instead of a broom.
  • People who…..you name it…I’m sure you get the idea.

It is these people, doing these things, that must be convinced that alternative approaches are possible, available, equally effective, AND will help prolong Mother Earth for posterity.

I don’t think we can legislate morality: social, environmental, or otherwise, to accomplish this. People being as ingenious as they are, will always find some way to get around the legislation…legally or not. Indeed, entire industries have been formed around this concept: witness the illegal drug industry. Instead we have to find some way(s) to encourage people to WANT to do something, rather than forcing them.

To get this philosophy willingly embraced by the masses, we first have to accept that

  1. “Man does not live by bread alone.”
  2. “Different strokes for different folks”, as they say. There are 7+ billion sets of genes currently out there, and no two of them are the same.
  3. “Preaching to the choir” won’t hack it at this stage in the game. The juggernaut of an inevitable earth’s fate can’t possibly be stopped by a handful of believers. At this point the masses are necessary.

Once these are accepted as a starting point, I would like to propose a 2-prong approach to change the thinking of “The Masses” towards their environment, causing them to:


I see that this is the only way to realistically SLOW our destructive actions.


The environmental movement needs a massive and continuous advertising campaign…. SO THEY ARE IN THE PUBLIC’S FACE AT ALL HOURS OF EVERY DAY OF THEIR LIVES…EVEN ACROSS GENERATIONS. I’m not talking about one ad, for 30 sec. today, then not again for another week or two, then dropped altogether in a month, as has been the case in the past (I’m sure you remember that ONE ad, many years ago, showing that fully-dressed Native American sitting on horseback, weeping at the shattered land he once knew to be so beautiful. Poignant! But only one ad, shown “only once”. I’ll bet you can’t name another environmental ad!)

We have to listen to business in this regard. Their agenda: sell their product at all costs! It obviously pays off. Watch any hour of TV. Listen to any hour of the radio. Look at the huge outdoor advertising billboards. Do you really think businesses would continue their constant advertising barrages were they not gaining something positive from the ads? Those ads cost millions of dollars PER MINUTE media time. Not only are they paying off, but they are also tax deductible as a business expense. Brilliant! Obvious! Simple! Elegant! Why isn’t the environmental movement doing the same? *

We have to BE IN THEIR FACE always with how they (the everyday people) address their lives relative to the environment.

The advertising should use professional advertising corporations, e.g. “Madison Avenue”, to take every single convenience that our modern, American society presents to its constituency (actually it is pure temptation), and in clear, honest, concise, serious, funny, poignant, 15 – 60 second vignettes, demonstrate to everyday people that their actions have dire consequences, that there are new, viable, easy, fun, alternatives (which also have consequences – everything does, but significantly less), that are more desirable than the old way of doing things.

Hey man! This is the 21st century! Certainly there are new and better ways of doing the same things! Certainly the old ways are passé by now. Certainly we can be more inventive than we were 20/50 years ago!

The overall goal of mine is to get everyday people to see that convenience IS INDEED simply passing the buck. At some point, someone has to pay. There would therefore also be ads for who pays, how long into the future one’s moral environmental responsibility lasts, the effects/quality of life their children will inherit due today’s actions, etc. EVERY convenience will be addressed EVERY moment of EVERY day so that eventually the EVERYDAY PERSON sees him/herself in this picture and begins to question whether or not it is really THAT inconvenient to do this, instead of that.

(Do you remember when Sesame Street took on the issue of juvenile obesity by having Cookie Monster eat proper amounts of nutritious foods, as well as cookies? Do you see the implications here? Do you see where they are going? Do you see their approach, i.e. who they are addressing and HOW OFTEN they are doing it? Brilliant!)


The second thing I would want everyone to do, is make a solemn pledge to themselves as follows: Think of something, anything, that will help change the environment in a positive direction… that you can, and will, do every day for the rest of your life… that will become so engrained in your “soul” that you will feel guilty if you forget to do it one day. It doesn’t have to be anything “big”, because “big” things tend to become too burdensome to continue for the rest of one’s life (like all those well-intended New Year’s resolutions that end about February). Smaller things are more feasible in this regard.

I’m convinced that if you do this “For Life”, soon three things will happen:

  1. You will begin to feel good about doing it and about yourself for doing it,
  2. Someone else will see you doing it, and ask what you are doing, and perhaps, they too will pick up on this concept, so the idea will spread,
  3. You will begin to find that this really isn’t that hard to do and you will probably look for (and find) something else to add to your repertoire of environmentally friendly things to do.”


I’m convinced that doing the above can “sell” environmental sensibility, hence make some small, but noticeably positive steps towards changing the environment to a much larger portion of the general public. I say: asking for small, less burdensome changes in behavior would be significantly more effective than asking for complete and total lifestyle changes, as does “Earth First”, “Earth Now”, and “Earth Liberation Front”. This is like “the sale” in the business world. Lower your individual price and more people will buy the product, thus far exceeding what you would make if the full price were charged…. AND…. once in the store, they most likely will buy other products.

* I can even suggest how all this can be accomplished at “no” cost.

– Peter Karch

Posted in Advocacy & Activism, Environment & Ecosystems, Media, Systemic Approaches, | Tagged

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