Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

distributed 11/17/01 - ©2001

A cartoon from the New Yorker (10/22/01) shows the sales floor of an automobile dealership. There's a rounded little car with a sticker in the window, a couple looking at the car, and the salesman is saying, "It runs on its conventional gasoline-powered engine until it senses guilt, at which point is switches over to battery power."

Guilt is an often-used motivator. It can be remarkably effective for the short term, but it does not hold up well for the long haul. Nagging may get some people to act, but the goal of their action is to get rid of the pain and annoyance of the guilt, and not to make a positive difference.

Write a check. Make a phone call. If that gets rid of the guilt, fine. But those actions are rarely tied to a growing commitment to the cause. Hooking people's guilt seldom inspires them to take future actions on their own.

And, clearly, the guilt trip won't work on those who don't already have some degree of commitment and involvement. The amazing auto of the cartoon will never switch over to battery power if the driver doesn't care about the environment.

Appealing to guilt is the easy way out for the organizer. It does not demand a lot of complicated thought or strategy. It does not need a fresh interpretation of the issues or the options. All it takes is an effective hook into some deep-seated sense of obligation.

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Another New Yorker cartoon (9/17/01) shows two men of the classical 'cave man' type. Both men are barefoot, dressed only in animal skins draped over one shoulder. One expounds to the other: "At first I'm pissed because she's all 'Fur is death! Fur is death!' But then I think, Dude! She's naked!"

Continued appeals to guilt tend to get people "pissed." The listeners become genuinely interested and motivated only when they find something that is positive, attractive, and interesting about the message.

Appealing to guilt is easy. Appealing to a positive vision is harder.

We have to figure out for ourselves what the vision is all about. Folk with a passion about an issue can start to see the reason for their efforts as "intuitively obvious to the most casual observer." It can be a surprisingly difficult challenge to back up and explain again just why working on the issue is important. That explanation, though, is essential to attracting new blood to the effort.

Then we need to find a compelling way of presenting that vision to others. Such a project is hard enough with a homogenous audience. It is even worse when we're reaching out to a diverse group.

As the cartoon suggests, some of our listeners may be attracted to different parts of the goal. "She's naked!" has a very different appeal than the ethics of animal rights, but either approach might be effective in stopping the killing.

In a more contemporary and realistic case, some may want to work on toxic waste issues because of the tie to racism in the location of waste dumps, others because of an interest in children, and still others because of a passion about cancer. All of these, and more, are important and legitimate reasons to be involved. But it makes it hard for the organizer to know what approach to use. It is so much easier to fall back on guilt -- "have you written your Senators about the new bill on Superfund cleanups?" -- than to compose a persuasive philosophical appeal to a diverse constituency.

Guilt -- and the companion emotional hooks of fear and anger -- are frequently used to kick people into action in short-term campaigns. Look at the action alerts that you probably receive on any number of issues. Do those motivators work for the long term? No. But they do work pretty well for mobilizing the troops for this week's crisis.

Those of us who are trying to do effective, long-term social change work -- who are trying to bring about personal, institutional and societal transformation toward eco-justice -- have a tricky balancing act. Sometimes we need to use guilt, fear and anger in a quick message to our diverse audiences, because it is so important to elicit a response on an immediate issue. But we also need to remember that over-use of that strategy tends to "piss off" people, instead of motivating them. And the emotional appeals won't ever bring new people into our constituency. Frequently, we need to shift strategies. We need to find the time, energy and focus to go back to the basics, and explain again and again why the cause is important.

It is only when we can proclaim our vision persuasively that we will really motivate people to invest themselves in the good work of caring for all of God's creation.

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"Lasting change happens when people see for themselves that a different way of life is more fulfilling than their present one."

-- Eknath Easwaran

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Next week, the entire staff of Eco-Justice Ministries will be taking a few days off for the Thanksgiving holiday. We'll be sending out the next Eco-Justice Notes around November 29.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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