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Q. Dear Umbra,

Why all the focus on green liberalism? We all know that if everybody dimmed their lights for 20 minutes every day all the whales would sing and dance, but … everybody isn’t going to do that. In fact, many people have at the core of their identity a deep hatred of environmentalism. So do we bring them on board? Go over their head and change the law? And how?

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Hugs and kisses,
Kevin H.
Phoenix, Ariz.

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It takes all kinds of people to make the planet greener.

ShutterstockIt takes all kinds of people to make the world greener.

A. Dearest Kevin,

You raise enough questions to fill a year’s worth of columns. But I am going to tackle them in the next few paragraphs, because I like a good end-of-year challenge. After that I am going to take a week off, knit myself some new snowshoes, and think about vermillion, violet … anything but green.

I appreciate the hugs and kisses, and I assume you are hyperbolizing in your letter to make a point. But two of your phrases give me pause: “green liberalism” and “deep hatred.” We live in a world that has become far too bifurcated, where we are filed in little boxes and stare suspiciously at each other through the cracks. If we can’t all get along, we can at least try to understand each other a little better. Herewith, Umbra’s Four-Point Guide to Combating Either-Or Thinking.

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  1. Green is not a synonym for liberal. For too long the notion of being green has been associated with being liberal. Well. Would you like to meet my friends at ConservAmerica? Or Green Evangelicals? Or the Energy and Enterprise Initiative? How about the U.S. Army? Let us shrug off the baggage associated with terminology, taking a cue from the founder of Young Conservatives for Energy Reform: “I don’t consider myself an environmentalist. I just consider myself an American who cares about energy and cares about the environment and cares about the future of this country.”
  1. Turning off the lights won’t save the world … but it will help. You’re right, turning off the lights won’t save the world. Even though my job here is to help you and my other dear readers figure out how to make your lives greener, one step at a time, I think we all know it will take more than that. We need a combination of forces to make lasting change, including legislation, incentives for businesses, and international cooperation. But the choices we make each day are one part of that equation. Keep turning off the lights, drive less, buy local, or buy nothing — your actions add up, and they do matter.
  1. Civility is still a possibility. When we find ourselves facing intractable opponents of green (they despise chartreuse especially!), do we “go over their heads”? Well, yes, it is statistically impossible to get everyone on board. But let us also practice civility, and remember that thinking people do change their minds. Why just this year, a prominent climate skeptic announced his conversion in The New York Times. And one of our readers told us Grist helped him “change the minds of a few Fox News watchers.” A recent study declared that those looking to sway non-believers on environmental topics can do so by appealing to concerns about “purity and sanctity” — you can find more tips in Grist’s series “How to Talk to a Climate Skeptic.”
  1. It takes a village to raise a ruckus. Systemic change is hard. Very hard. And it requires a lot of people speaking up, sometimes for a long time. If we look around, we can see examples of public pressure leading to policy shifts. In our very present and painful moment, the gun control debate seems to be accelerating in part because of public pressure, although of course we don’t know what, if anything, will result. This year also saw great gains for gay marriage, progress that has been decades in the making. In the not-too-distant past, it took the Civil Rights Act to end segregation in public institutions. In all these cases, the public had an important role to play. I am fond of the story Bill Moyers tells, in which President Johnson asked Martin Luther King, Jr. to keep organizing protests. “Make it possible,” Johnson said, “for me to do the right thing.” Similarly, President Obama recently said to those speaking up on gun control, “You’ve started something, and now I’m asking you to keep at it.”

The same is true of climate change. Listen to what former Republican Gov. Jon Huntsman told Grist this year: “Well, [the climate debate] hasn’t translated into any kind of action within the political community because you don’t have people on a broad basis who are pushing us because they feel it’s urgent.”

So here’s to pushing for change in the new year, on the causes that matter to you most. Here’s to speaking up when speaking up is required. Here’s to living boldly and thoughtfully and lovingly, and trying to respect other people even when they are acting like dingbats. Here’s to smarter cities, cleaner energy, healthier and tastier food, and sensible responses to the climate threat.

And as always, dear readers, here’s to you — your questions are inspiring, vexing, and never-ending, and you make my life richer every day.