Cowboys, Conservationists, and the Hopeful Herd

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When we are trying to make something happen, conservationists sometimes think like cowboys. We break out the rhetorical cattle prod and try to shock the public out of complacency and into action with a stiff jolt of bad news. There's a time and place for that -- but to motivate people to actually do something, you have to mix the bad news with a more positive environmental message.

Here are some examples of "cattle prod" messages that have crossed my desk recently: "Giant corporations will spend billions to control our elections," "Massive portions of the ocean blighted by plastic trash," "methane entering the atmosphere threatens to accelerate global warming crisis." Yikes! Sometimes the content of my morning inbox makes me want to just go back to bed and pull the covers over my head.

Of course, these messages are true. And you have to tell the public about a problem to make the case for your solution. But if you just jolt them repeatedly with the bad news cattle prod, you might demoralize and desensitize your audience. Sure, they might agree with you — but they won't do anything.


To give you a flavor for what I mean, I recently ran some conservation outreach materials past a test panel of everyday citizens. Here are some reactions to the shock messages:

Shock Messages About Bad Environmental Habits:
• "There was so much garbage shown and the damage was so big that it gave me pause. Would what I could do really help stop all that horrible waste?"
• "The actions of one person alone do not really add up to much."
Shock Messages About Financial Need:
• "My action/donation would only be effective only if I am one of MANY who donate. Land is not cheap…"
• "I wouldn't be certain my small donation would really make a difference…"
Shock Messages About Government Inaction:
• "Being only one voice, my single opinion can hardly effect political manueverings…"
• "I realize that state representatives receive hundreds, if not thousands, of complaints and suggestions everyday. Unless this action is taken on a large scale, I am doubtful it would hold a significant impact on government policies…"


Not exactly the words of people poised to spring into action to save the day, are they? These quotes underscore the urgency of mixing in some encouragement and words of success. That's what author John W. Gardner meant when he wrote, "the first and last task of a leader is to keep hope alive."

So listen up, cowboy — you might get a few cows moving with your trusty cattle prod, but it's the herd mentality that moves society. People find hope and courage in that herd. Read how our test panel reacted to some conservation messages that evoked the sense of strength in numbers:

When Told Others Are Working Together to Change Bad Habits:
• "…one person's acts multiplied by many thousands of like minded people can have a profound impact on the problem."
When Told Others Have Already Done Their Part to Give:
• "…having donations matched makes my action seem like it would have a bigger impact."
When Told Others Have Made a Difference by Signing a Petition to Officials:
• "…a widely distributed petition can have some influence on the various representatives of the petitioning constituencies."

So, next time you find yourself sitting at the computer to concoct an environmental message that you want to motivate your some audience to some action, remember the importance of the hopeful herd.

Moo!

about the author:
Eric Eckl writes the water blog about how to raise environmental awareness and promote conservation action. His company has developed the Due Diligence Test Panel, a service that nature protection and pollution control organizations can use to pre-test their environmental message materials prior to publication.

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Water Words That Work, LLC helps nature protection and pollution control organizations modernize and professionalize their communications. The company has curated the web's largest collection of environmental issue surveys and environmental polls.

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