“A hectare is the size of Minnesota” - How does one campaign effectively for the environment?

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Despite the careless mistake, this letter represents to me individual concern translated into action. (Click for a larger view)

Like many offices, mine has a variety of items pinned or stuck to the walls and cabinets. They include a photo of my wonderful kids, photos of some animals important to me, interesting seeds and other plant parts, the name card of the Director of the Earwig Research Centre, a favorite quote of the taxonomically-inclined – Nomina si nesci, periit cognito rerum or If things are not known by names the knowledge of them is lost—by Linnaeus, a paraphrase of the late Stephen Jay Gould’s admonition We will not fight to save what we do not love, and we cannot love what we do not know, and a letter with its final sentence highlighted—A hectare is the size of Minnesota

The letter dates from 11 years ago and was written by a 13 year-old boy from a middle school in Tennessee. It is addressed to our former President Jim Wolfensohn whom he was requesting “not to cut down the rainforest”. He lists a number of good reasons with numbers and statistics, such as “In one year 20 million hectares are cut down”. It is that which he meant to compare with Minnesota. The letter and many like it were sent to me from the President’s office for individual attention, and I keep it not so much for the careless mistake but because it represents individual concern translated into action.

I think it was quite likely the boy’s teacher who promoted the letter writing (for there were a number on the same theme from the same school at the same time) but it could well have been the boy’s idea.  Either way it doesn’t matter. The point is that instead of complaining to each other, they took some action. I can’t find my response, but I remember thanking him very much for taking the effort, telling him about the World Bank-WWF Alliance on Forest Conservation with its ambitious targets, and the President’s CEO Forum which brought together the CEOs of logging companies and the major conservation organizations to try to reach common ground and concerted action.

Over 20 years ago I was a consultant on a World Bank mission in Indonesia reviewing the Bank’s performance in the Transmigration Program. This was one of the hottest environmental stories of the time and the Bank was pilloried over its engagement. The Indonesian Minister of Transmigration was the target of an international letter-writing campaign and I remember vividly one of the meetings with him. He brought into the room a huge, thick ring-binder of letters which he opened to find the letters which had particularly struck him. He had read them, he knew them, he learned from them, and he was giving them attention. That was a good lesson and one relevant even now. I am not convinced that just adding your name to a web-based petition is very effective because the recipients know how very ‘cheap’ in time it is to just add one’s name.  But letters (albeit scanned and emailed) with a beginning, a middle and an end, which are clearly not copies of an NGO’s suggested text, would probably have greater impact. Sure, the quantity would be less, but not necessarily the reaction of the reader.

In my office, surrounded by photos of my kids and of some animals, seeds and plant parts, cards, quotes, letters...

This gets into the whole realm of understanding how we are influenced to change behavior, the very essence of the intention of environmental education and campaigns. The designs of many, or likely most, environmental campaigns are not based on empirical data on the existing behavior, attitudes and values of the people they are trying to reach or on the responses the campaign is supposed to elicit. It is so very easy to spend money on campaigns to increase awareness of and concern about an issue, but rather harder to bring about a sustained change in behavior. A group that specializes in the social marketing aspects of conservation campaigning focuses on generating local pride, and boasts impressive results is Rare.   

I am half-tempted to track down the now-young man from Tennessee and tell him that his letter is on my wall and that it still influences me. I hope that the Bank’s reply to him motivated him to continue to communicate his concern about issues. For a moment 11 years ago he was an activist. Is he still, or is he now one of the majority, an inactivist?


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