This Green Life
A monthly journal of sorts by Sheryl Eisenberg

APRIL 2013: Spreading the word on environmental issues is easy. Getting people to pay attention is another matter.

Becoming an Earth Ambassador
The art of persuasion

If you follow environmental issues closely, you may often feel the urge to share your knowledge with those around you for the sake of the common good. You think: if only Gina and Joe knew about the Sargasso Sea of plastic trash in the Pacific, they'd stop buying bottled water. Or: tomorrow's the last day for public comments on fracking. I'd better get the word out.

In theory, educating family and friends about these issues is a great idea. In practice, it's a hard trick to pull off.

If you've tried it, you know. Your lessons rarely go over as well as you'd hoped. Inexplicably, your friends yawn and change the subject or argue the points. However they react, the upshot is the same: no conversions to the cause.

At least, that's often been my experience.

There is a simple reason, and we all know what it is. Outside the classroom, people don't like being lectured to. Even less do they like being told how to live, except perhaps by real preachers, and then only on the Sabbath. At worst, they're offended; at best, they write us off. ("There's Sheryl going on about the environment again...")

So how can we get our message across more effectively to our family and friends?

We begin by being mindful of the nature of these relationships. Our nearest and dearest are not potential recruits, but people who trust and care for us. To speak to them otherwise, even in the service of a good cause, would distance them from us, which can't be good.

We consider each person's interests, just as we do in ordinary conversation. (None of my friends would think to talk to me about sports, nor would I bring up Victorian literature with many of them.) If there's no point of connection on an environmental issue, we don't bring the subject up. If there is, we make it as relevant to the person as possible.

We avoid talking doom and gloom at get-togethers where our seriousness would be out of place. It never pays to be a killjoy.

When it comes to green practices, we talk about what we do, not about what others should do. And to the extent possible, we rely on our friends to see what we do, rather than make a point of telling them. After all, our reusable water bottle and cloth napkins don't really need commentary, nor does our habit of biking to the store. These things really do speak for themselves.

When raising a particular issue, we explain why it matters to us. Do we want to save forests because our father loved trees? We tell that story. Do we fight for clean air standards because our child has asthma? We tell that story too. Was it an essay by Thoreau that got us living more simply? A film about factory farming that made us stop eating meat? The memory of once common butterflies that have disappeared from our garden which got us campaigning for a carbon cap to rein in climate change? When we relate these stories, we dwell on our eureka moments, knowing they will make a greater impression than a recitation of facts alone.

Of course, we bring facts to the table too, solid ones we're sure of, but not too many at a time. People will ask if they want to know more.

If a friend disagrees with our position, we ask why and listen with an open mind, remembering there is something to be learned on both sides from every exchange.

We are not strident and we know when to stop. If we've described the issue, tied it to the person's interests, told our personal story, and got no reaction, we put the subject to bed.

But if we see a spark of interest, we fan the flame.

In the end, we let the other person decide whether he or she is interested. And we respect the person either way, just as we hope to be respected in turn.

We know there will always be another opportunity for conversation. We keep the doors open.

—Sheryl Eisenberg

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On This Topic

ON FACEBOOK, make your environmental shares personal with a brief introductory comment that explains why you found the post or link you're sharing interesting. Your own observations are the thing most likely to engage your friends.

Consider creating a special Facebook list of the friends who are most receptive to environmental information and ideas. Post to that list instead of all your Facebook friends. Here are instructions for creating Facebook lists.

Exercise restraint. Too much posting on Facebook will get you screened out. If you want to post often, try Twitter instead where people can choose to follow you or not. You might even pick up followers outside your circle. Blogging is another option.

SHARE EXPERIENCES—they're easily worth a thousand words or more. Ask a friend to come along to the farmer's market or join you for dinner at a farm-to-table restaurant. Go berry or apple picking together at an organic farm. Suggest a beginner's birdwatching walk with your local Audubon chapter. Meet up for weekly strolls in the park.


American Psychological Association
Crafting Persuasive Pro-environment Messages

UC Berkeley
Conservatives Can be Persuaded to Care More about the Environment

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Sheryl Eisenberg is a writer, web developer and long-time advisor to NRDC. With her firm, Mixit Productions (, she brought NRDC online in 1996, designed NRDC's first websites, and continues to develop special web features for NRDC. She created and, for several years, wrote the Union of Concerned Scientists' green living column, Greentips, and has designed and contributed content to many nonprofit sites. Sheryl makes her home in Tribeca (NYC), where—along with her children, Sophie and Gabe, and husband, Peter—she tries to put her environmental principles into practice. No fooling.
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