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Build a Future You Can Be Proud Of


This is my second and final post in a ‘blog-off’ against 9 other bloggers  to be UNEP’s official blogger for World Environment Day in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. I would be delighted if you could go here and vote for my post. (You can vote for this post even if you’ve already voted for my first post.)  And if you have a few seconds to share the link on Facebook or Twitter, I will be eternally grateful!

At 16, Jadav “Molai” Payeng found a sandbar in his native India littered with the bodies of dead snakes.

Floods had washed them ashore, and without trees to protect them from the sun, the snakes slowly baked to death. When he found them, Jadav sat among their lifeless forms and wept.

Image credit: Michael and Patricia Fogden

He contacted his local forestry department, who told him that trees would not grow in that area. But Jadav started planting. He moved to a home nearby, so he could devote all his time to his newfound passion. Thirty years later, a 1,360 acre forest stands there. It’s called the Molai Woods.

What can this story teach us about sparking public interest in June’s Rio+20 talks?

In this interview, Annie Leonard (creator of the popular documentary “The Story of Stuff”) talks about the tendency of environmentalists to “screen for differences”, in the name of “ideological purity”. Leonard says she used to enter a room and mentally dismiss anyone who had a black mark on their environmental record—driving an SUV, for instance, or using plastic bags instead of reusable ones.

But she came to realize that no one has a perfect environmental record. Everyone has, at some point, engaged in unsustainable behaviour. So she started screening for similarities instead, and she soon found she was surrounded by environmental allies.

Jadav Payeng wasn’t an environmentalist when he planted the first tree of what was to become the Molai Woods. He wasn’t a forest conservation specialist, or a climate scientist. He was just a 16-year-old boy, deeply moved by nature.

Image credit: D. Sharon Pruitt

Similarly, when we consider who we would like to include in June’s worldwide effort to build a green future, we should not look only to those who satisfy our personal definitions of environmentalism. Since the fate of every last human being is bound up with the fate of the planet, we must seek to include everyone.

This should not be a hard sell. A lot of people think leading a green lifestyle is merely a ‘feel-good thing’, but the benefits go far beyond that.

We need to make clear in the minds of the public the strong correlation between environmental benefits and financial rewards. For example, selling your car and deciding to commute on foot, by bicycle or by public transit not only reduces CO2 emissions, it also saves you the cost of gas, maintenance and insurance. And reducing your consumption by reusing things isn’t just good for the environment—it’s also good for your bank account.

Shopping doesn’t contribute to long-term happiness, since the novelty of a new purchase wears off quickly. But if you make green choices and save money as a result, you’ll be able to work less, giving you time to do what research proves makes us happy: nurture relationships with family, friends, and members of your community.

These are troubled economic times, and that has always meant environmental concerns take a back seat. And so, as the Rio+20 talks draw near, it’s important the truth be widely known: that the health of the economy is wholly dependent on sustainable development.

A 2011 United Nations report concluded that a shift to a green economy “has the potential to achieve sustainable development and poverty eradication on a scale and at a speed not seen before.” And in February, a report from the non-partisan think tank Next 10 found that California’s green economy outperformed its total economy by a factor of 2.

To top it all off, a report released this month by the United Kingdom’s Committee on Climate Change showed that preventing climate change would cost the average citizen mere pennies a day—handily refuting the oft-cited claim that widespread climate action would hurt the economy. Personally, I wouldn’t mind paying five cents a day to save our climate.

But perhaps the most effective way to mobilize people for the Rio+20 talks is through the power of storytelling. In the same interview mentioned above, Annie Leonard talks about how the human brain is “hardwired to process and assimilate information through stories”. We remember much more from hearing a story than we do from a lecture, because stories appeal to our emotions.

So as we try to alert people to Rio+20’s monumental importance, maybe we should rely less on charts and graphs, and more on stories like that of Jadav “Molai” Payeng—the tale of a boy who valued the environment so much he devoted his life to it.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. 04/17/2012 12:23 PM

    I love stories like this – thank you. It’s true that no one has a perfect environmental record, but if we care more then that will hopefully translate into doing more.

  2. Andrea permalink
    04/17/2012 10:19 PM

    Or we can rely on them both, by “hooking” the audience with a story that speaks to their emotions, then presenting the facts that back up the need for change. Great post, Scott!

  3. 05/01/2012 9:16 AM

    Thanks for this. I look forward to following your blog. Hope you’ll consider same for me.

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