I was at a meeting the other day—as I am just about every day. And, as often happens at the beginning of each meeting, everyone introduces themselves and gives their affiliations. For example, I always say, “I am David Bancroft with the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay.”
One of individuals at the session gave his name and said he was retired, but stated that he considered himself to be an “empathic environmentalist.”
The empathic environmentalist affiliation stunned many in the room and the question was asked, “What do you mean by the term, empathic environmentalist?”
The person said that he had noticed that many in the environmental community were rather judgmental of polluters. He said he had noticed that environmentalists often think of polluters as bad actors who purposefully spoiled the environment for economic gain or just because they do not care.
In fact, the person said, many of the individuals who pollute do not know that there may be a better way. That there may be processes, practices or products that are more Earth-friendly is not well-known beyond the environmental community.
That is why this person who had always been, and still is, a stalwart in the environmental community coined the term, empathic environmentalist—or EE for short.
Pointing the finger of blame at polluters and calling them the enemy is not always the best approach. Education, information, understanding and empathy may be the better arrows in the quiver for those us in the environmental community to use first in our quest for a cleaner world.
I began thinking more and more about my EE friend and how his approach may be applied to Chesapeake Bay restoration. I also remembered another friend who was really confused by the description of nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment pollution as an impediment to Bay health.
After he had heard a presentation on the sources of Bay pollution and pounds of nutrients causing eutrophic conditions in the mainstem of the Bay, he said he understood the science, but why do we call the nitrogen, phosphorous and sediments flowing to the Bay “nutrients?”
He said he knows that they are feeding unwanted biological processes, but from the vantage point of the public trying to understand Bay deterioration, why do we call pollutants, nutrients?
His point is that the word, nutrients, to a lay audience sounds like a good thing. Why would we want to prevent a good thing like nutrients from getting to the Chesapeake Bay?
From a semantics standpoint, if our objective is getting the public to understand the challenges of Bay restoration, we should not be using a word like nutrients to signify something bad. This is somewhat like trying to tell parents that vitamins are not good for their children.
The general public has an understanding that the word, nutrients, signifies a good thing. Either we change the public perception of the word, nutrients, or we use a different phase to increase public understanding.
My EE friend and my nutrient friend have something important to say to those of us in the environmental arena.
First, we should not assume that everyone has heard the environmental message, understands it or are as well-versed in all of its permutations as we are.
Second, we need to cut out the jargon and speak in terms the public can relate to.
Lastly, we need to express more empathy. As we all know, bring green is not easy.
But working together we can finish the job of Bay restoration.