How to be an effective environmentalist

People pursuing a career with passion beyond taking care of themselves understandably often take pride on their values and devotion, which in itself is not unreasonable. However, what’s not productive is the tendency to judge others who don’t share the same dedication. It certainly is not the best strategy to spark positive change, or to demonstrate good characters, as Fitzgerald put it:

“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

– The Great Gatsby

These truly are words to live by.

Environmentalists aren’t particularly known for being non-judgmental, which doesn’t make them the most fun people to be around. If you google “why are environmentalists…”, what comes up on top is “annoying” and “stupid”. The results are even worse when replacing “environmentalists” with “vegans”: “angry”, “self-righteous” and “obnoxious” are the popular suggestions. Those words certainly don’t paint a rosy picture of our ability to be effective at spreading our message. Luckily it’s never too late to face the problem, and look for ways to fix it.

Why should we care about what others think? Well, Because those who find your preaching annoying are precisely the ones we need on board the most. A great part of our current environmental and social problems are rooted in people’s modern lifestyle: the day to day shopping, travelling, and eating habits. If that doesn’t change, we can never achieve sustainability.

The problem however is that the change of heart is not easy. Just think, how successful have you been in influencing others around you to adopt more environmentally friendly behaviors? Maybe not so many. Anyone ever attempted his/her new year’s resolutions knows how hard it is to make or break a habit. So how can we be more effective at communicating our sustainability concerns?

Let’s start with how not to do it

  1. Feeling superior and getting angry at others who question you or don’t agree. That’s the attitude that never accomplishes anything, and probably even further turn people away from whatever you stand for.
  2. It’s all about you. While your story of how you find your life passion can be very interesting and inspiring; getting too absorbed into it, especially when your listeners aren’t interested can be a tiny bit annoying. Do show your passion but just don’t forget to pay attention to others’ perspectives, passion and concerns. They are the ones you want to touch upon with your message in the end.
  3. Only focusing on winning the debate. As discussed in another blog post, the crowd act against reason, science and expert opinions and tend to make decisions largely base on the “meta-factors”, we have to recognize the limit of listing hard facts to win debates against our friends at dinner parties. Winning an argument may provide instant satisfaction to you but actually has questionable mind changing impact on the ones you think you defeated.

So how can we get more effective at changing hearts?

  1. A big lesson to be learned from marketing is that appealing to people’s feelings works wonders. Environmentalism has not historically been associated with warm fuzzy feelings. On the opposite, it triggers emotions like anger, guilt, and worries about the pending apocalypse. No wonder no one is particularly excited about subscribing to the Greenpeace daily newsletter. Granted what we are dealing with is unpleasant and uncomfortable for people, which makes it very difficult to spread the words, those are the cards we got to deal with… But despair not, there are so many ways to tie some happy feelings to sustainability. Instead of insisting on scaring people with the bloody pictures of the slaughterhouse, focus more on the health benefits of being vegan and delicious vegan dishes. Instead of berating the slavery behind fast fashion relentlessly, why not show more support for the style and concept of ethical fashion. You get the idea.
  2. People like hearing the truth, but only from those they trust. How to earn trust? Being more likable could be a Step One.

Be sincere. Present your good will for nature, people and those around you. Summon more encouragement instead of judgment.
Be patient. While how chicken nuggets are made is old news to you, a lot of people just really don’t know anything about it. Information is power, use it well. Get back into your pre-environmentalist mind and think about how you would have wanted to be informed. Certainly not with contempt but kindness and patience. I, for one used to not see the point of veganism. As a biologist, my argument was simple: we are omnivores by nature… It took time and information for me to change my position. Patient guidance from a friend works way better than having pig blood poured on people’s heads.

“if you tell me nicely, i will listen.”                                                                    — Everybody

Be cool about it. Again, if people don’t like you, they won’t want to hear what you have to say. When sensing strong resistance, just quietly hold your ground. Don’t turn into the Hulk and make the experience of informing others negative. You get discouraged, they get defensive. Nobody walks away a better person.


And probably most importantly, be a convincing force yourself through actions. This might be the most fundamental but influential. Stop obsessing with others, but just refocus on yourself and make sure that you do the basic things we want everyone else to do. Don’t get sucked in consumerism during Christmas season, consume less animal products, choose fair trade food and ethical fashion, carpool, don’t waste, take care of your stuff, recycle carefully… Going through the list, you may realize you are not a perfect environmentalist yourself, and it is ok. Being perfect is not the goal. Compromises can be made to some extent for many reasons in everyday life. Understand that there are other aspects in your and everyone’s life. We do the best we can. So why be righteous? Instead, just be a better person yourself, which is probably the most efficient strategy to make a change.

Now, cliche alert…

“Be the change you want to see in the world.”



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More related sources to check out on communication:

Dan Ariely’s online course and book on irrational behavior: based on cognitive science.

Nick Cooney’s book Change of Heart: lessons learned from his animal rights advocacy career on spreading social change.

Alain de Botton’s book and ted talk Atheism 2.0: what we can learn from religions on influencing the crowd.

Daoism’s depiction of the way of water.

“Everybody believes they are the good guy” by a former CIA undercover.