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Special Topics in Environmental Frustration

July 9, 2008

As I might have already mentioned, the Environmental Studies 101 class I took this past semester completely changed my life. I feel like I've been given special glasses that help me see the impact of every behavior and product around me--I can never see a light bulb or a sprinkler the same way again. I came home this summer bursting with ideas about how to live more sustainably, and I was eager to share these ideas with friends and family. However, there was one lesson I had yet to learn: people do not like to be told what to do.

If there were an Environmental Psychology class offered at Oberlin, I'd sign up for it in a heartbeat. Because a few lessons in "How to Talk So People Will Listen" would make a world of difference in dealing with those who: a) don't care, b) get defensive, c) figure they're going to die before the world ends anyways, or d) are set in their ways. These are the people I see watering their lawn at noon (while California is on drought alert, mind you) and pulling their SUVs into the McDonald's drive-through.

It's so frustrating to hear all semester from the brilliant Professor John Petersen just how dire the state of the planet is, then to see such flagrant apathy back home. I see people tossing their Styrofoam cups and plastic sporks and want to scream. I drive by a store at 3 a.m. and see "Sorry, we're closed" but all the lights on. It makes me long for those Oberlin days of eating local, organic produce in the co-ops and parking my bike next to a hundred others in front of the library. But, as anyone who organized the Dorm Energy Competition will tell you, apathy can lurk at Oberlin as well.

Basically, it wasn't easy to go from this (the solar powered Environmental Studies building at Oberlin):

to this (a typical smog-filled day in L.A.):

So how do we reach the ones who don't want to be reached?

Well, I tell myself that simply leading by example is important and effective, but when I read about the polar ice caps melting away I start worrying that riding my bike to work and hoping others will notice isn't enough. But when I start trying to make suggestions, people feel guilt-tripped and nagged and then aren't receptive.

I suppose I should turn to the advice of a current Obie I admire: Lucas Brown, who co-founded the SEED House (Student Experiment in Ecological Design) last year. Lucas believes that the best way to effect change is to show peers how fun and easy going green can be. When SEED House members have guests over, they show them their odorless composting and low-energy light bulbs in a way that doesn't feel like lecturing, but more like a friend letting a friend in on a cool, new discovery. The tone: "Hey, check this out!" not "Do this or else!"

I have had some summer success, such as getting my family to change our light bulbs and buy produce mostly from the farmer's market. I also convinced another intern at the newspaper to bike to work, not exactly a challenge when gas is $4.69 a gallon, but still a good step. I hope to take several more of these steps before the summer's end.

Basically, no matter what issue at Oberlin inspires you--and trust me, there will be one--there will always be a challenge in bringing back what you've learned to your home community. After all, you can't always preach to the choir. I believe Obies are ready to meet this challenge.

As I grapple with these issues, I'd love any feedback from Obies and prospies, so feel free to post a question or comment.

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