Q. Dear Umbra,
Is there a way to re-engage people who used to be active in our online climate group but don’t seem as eager to participate lately?
— Regretting Ever Playing Leader, Yikes
A. Dear REPLY,
2020 has brought a host of new preoccupations to the average Fretting Hour (which, by my account, occurs anywhere between 11:00 p.m. and 3:00 a.m.). Here we go: pandemic, pandemic-driven recession, complete inability of government to actually address pandemic, resurgence of pandemic, police brutality, further violence stemming from response to protests against police brutality, the increasingly apparent incompetence and cruelty of the country’s leaders, the impending opportunity to elect new, ostensibly more competent and less cruel leaders, and all the aforementioned factors that might make that opportunity go horribly, horribly wrong.
So yes, climate change remains one of the biggest upcoming and ongoing threats out there, but if I’m being honest, trying to get people to devote significant mental attention to any one issue is a pretty crazy-making venture at the moment.
But I commiserate with you. I can offer the perspective of someone whose full-time job it is to write/think about climate change — and yet even I find myself increasingly distracted by all the other catastrophes going on. And that’s to say nothing of the later-in-the-night fretting I do over big personal decisions, like whether I should move to be closer to family or if I want to procreate in the future.
That’s not to say you or your group should abandon your very laudable climate goals — far from it! But it’s crucial that you make connections between all of those crises and climate change if you want to remain relevant and effective. And believe me, those connections are actually not nearly as tenuous as you might think! Gentrification that pushes out and disadvantages Black communities also gets in the way of building equitable, climate-resilient cities; community-wide sacrifice and cooperation are necessary for both pandemic safety and climate progress; and, actually, it’s no coincidence that there are so many major crises happening all in line with the global warming one.
It’s even possible that the current shitshow that is 2020 might actually attract some new members to your group. A conversation with a colleague recently brought up the possibility that there are millions of people out there who are just starting to awaken to extremely grave societal ills and urgently, passionately want to do something about them. They just don’t know what to do. They’re logged onto Twitter chomping their nails feverishly clicking “join” on a hundred new listservs and petitions and fundraisers, and waiting anxiously to be told what their next action should be.
That leads me to my next point: Let’s talk about what your “climate group” is doing — I’m curious. I’m guessing that you mean a group that organizes protests, or petitions local lawmakers to support pro-climate bills, or pitches in on election campaigns or fundraisers for pro-climate local candidates. Those are all really, really useful things and I applaud you for doing them! A million times over! (If your climate group is not doing any of those things, um, well, I recommend that you start.)
But not all pro-climate causes are equally enticing — or urgent, one might argue. If your climate group is doing things that might be considered tone-deaf right now, like — at the risk of denigrating any of these causes — going balls-deep on anti-plastic campaigns, tree-planting, or recreating Gal Gadot’s Imagine video but for climate change somehow, you might be alienating your members. That’s because it’s very hard to connect any of those things to the more urgent-seeming crises at bay. Your absentee group mates might be reading your emails and thinking: This seems off.
Maybe you’re offended that I even suggested that your climate group is focusing on the wrong things, i.e., straws, although I’m very aware that the fossil fuel industry is extremely hot on keeping the production of unnecessary plastics in full force. And I get it — I’m sorry! I just had to bring up that possibility. But if your members are still checked out even though you’re focusing on the most urgently relevant things, it might be for a couple of other reasons.
One possibility is that you’re not doing a great job selling your efforts. Again, I write things on the internet for a living, and I put a lot of effort into thinking about whether people will actually want to click on and read what I write. It’s hard when the internet is filled up with billions of new words every day, and let’s say half a million of those are interesting and/or intelligent. (Ha.) You want to engage people by immediately grabbing hold of what they care about and waving it energetically in front of them, ah, metaphorically speaking. Look at some of your recent emails: Are they snappy? Skimmable? Action-oriented? If you’re not already looking at analytics, now is a great time to start.
Another possibility for your group’s recent apathy is that you’re not selling why your group’s efforts are important! “Because they just are” or “because you should care” isn’t enough; we should be doing so many things to fix and rebuild a very flawed society, there are so many important cracks and leaks in that society. I mean, really it might be more of a tear-down job at this point, but that aside… you need to state, specifically, what you need your group members’ help to accomplish. It’s like any relationship: Ask for what you want! If they can’t give it to you, they’ll say no, and maybe that relationship is over, or maybe it’s on a break and they’ll come back when they’re ready.
In a world full of so many fires, I completely understand the feeling of working hard to put out one particular (and very important) blaze and worrying that you’re increasingly alone doing it. But you’re not! The challenge is really just making sure that your efforts against climate change acknowledge and incorporate the reality in which climate change is happening — one that is very unjust, but doesn’t have to be forever.