Simran Sethi (University of Kansas professor, all-around green star, and way-back-in-the-day TreeHugger TV alum) has a new talk from TEDx Cibeles that's more than worth the next 26 minutes and 17 seconds of your time.
Titled "Why and how do we engage?" it covers a lot of ground, as the title hints at, but there's one particular theme that I think really deserves a careful listen, re-listen, re-re-listen, and then some contemplation. It deals with how people receive information and make decisions about that information—what forms of storytelling work best.
The way to make information relevant is not to ask people to think about or worry about something new—especially not something that's far away in time or space. The stories have to be close to us, emotionally or physically. Or, we have to displace what's already in someone's pool or worry.
This approach is contrasted with the usual liberal, progressive, green movement approach of throwing facts at people and trying to make an entirely rational argument—which just does not work both theoretically (Simran gives some research examples in the talk) and practically (um, viz, every major international environmental conference in recent memory).
As for why it doesn't work, watch the talk (hint: confirmation bias, among other things...).
But consider all this in the context of big, long-term, international issues such as climate change—where the only solution is collective action well in advance of the effects being dramatically, immediately, threateningly felt. Humans are well equipped to deal with threats at the metaphorical doorstep, but not so well equipped for the more abstract threats. With climate change, if we wait until we're all directly experiencing the effects of warming, ocean acidification, etc etc it will be well past the point where anything meaningful can be done about it.
That's obviously the hard nut here.
There's another part of this though that's worth noodling on: How to get around the finite pool of worry, so that specific worthy issues don't get displaced by other equally worthy ones, or so that people don't just shut off all worry, other than the minutely immediate?
I wonder if redefining the issues from specifics (polar bears habitat melting, air pollution in city X, overfishing in region Y, the plight of animals in factory farms) into cultivating more general attitudes which encompass more healthy, stable, long-lasting motivations for action (such as cultivating compassion in a broad-based manner versus framing issues in terms of guilt or simple reaction) would work.
There are only so many things you can be actively outraged by, and only for so long, before you emotionally and intellectually burn out. Whereas, expanding your sphere of compassion, from the easy and close (yourself, your family) to the slightly farther away (your community, your city), and farther still—expanding what is considered me and we and not them and other—seems the more stable path.
Not that encouraging people to be more compassionate is easy (especially when immediate concerns distract them, as in the false choice of economy v environment), but it is issue-independent.
That's a subset, to my mind, of what Simran describes as mattering most in creating stories that reach people: Those that connect, that show the relationship between ourselves, each other and the world around us.
Final tangent: Moving from us v. them to we really isn't helped by the current use of technology, the Balkanization of belief exploited in much of media to rally viewer or readership. I'm not convinced it's an inherent part of the internet, television, etc but it is being used that way.