Thursday, September 10, 2015

Musings: Environmental Issues and Reasons to Care

Lainey Piland photo

How do we get people to care? This is an enduring challenge in regard to environmental issues and the central question of an excellent article I came across today.

The Messengers, an article published in the current issue of Pacific Standard Magazine, explores messaging in relation to environmental issues, and how that messaging either inspires action or sinks us into a defeated state of depression. Do we focus on hope, or do we take a chance on forcing people to face grief over what's lost and cross our fingers that they'll be propelled forward into action rather than down into defeat? The need for hope seems like a no-brainer, but this article suggests that both tactics - including grief - may actually be necessary.
What we might do and what we might change, were we to stop hiding from grief and instead face the profoundly painful, profoundly beautiful truth of all that we’re losing.
The subject of this article is artist and photographer Chris Jordan. I'm sure most of us have seen his work: the devastating photos of deceased Laysan albatrosses on Midway Island; bellies filled with deadly plastic. These photos reveal a terrible consequence of our throwaway society in their depiction of decomposing albatross bodies, with the plastic that killed them still intact and just as brightly colored as it was when we threw it into the trash, never expecting that it would one day kill a beautiful bird on a remote island in the Pacific.

I remember the first time I saw Jordan's albatross photos. It was several years ago, and I was sitting hunched over my wheezing old laptop, probably procrastinating on finishing a paper for school. Those gut-wrenching photos loaded slowly on the screen, revealing horrifying images that I didn't want to see, but couldn't help scrolling through. I went through a range of emotions: shock, then nausea, horror, anger, guilt and sadness. I felt defeated. All of those birds were dead, all of that plastic was floating in the faraway ocean - what could I do about it? I closed the photos, blocked the grief from my awareness, and probably got to work on that paper.

After seeing those photos - which really were my initial introduction to the Laysan albatross - did I do anything? Did I take any action to address that problem? Nope.

In that situation, grief and horror in the absence of hope was paralyzing for me. But I also wonder whether my lack of proximity, my lack of familiarity with Midway Island, with the Laysan albatross, also contributed to my lack of action. What if, rather than occurring in a far-flung place I'd never seen, there were birds scattered dead in my backyard or in my favorite park down the street; their bare skeletons forming a cage around a pile of colorful plastic that had caused them a slow and painful death? Would I have done something then? Absolutely.

So what's the difference between the albatrosses and my backyard birds? One of my college professors said something that will stick with me for the rest of my life: People care about what they know. Unless people can find a personal connection to an issue, they are unlikely to care enough about it to take action. Sure, I was incredibly sad about the albatrosses. But I wasn't familiar with them, didn't really know anything about them, had never seen one in person, and as a result, had no real connection to them that pushed me beyond grief into action.

Barn swallow nestlings in the rafters above my horse's stall. I'm well acquainted with these dear birds!

Chris Jordan's work with the Laysan albatross has evolved since those initial gut-wrenching photos. Rather than only depicting their terrible deaths, he also introduces us to the albatross in life, with photos of beautiful albatross pairs mated for life, a parent watching over a newly-hatched chick, a juvenile albatross testing its wings on those ocean breezes for the first time. These photos show moments of intimacy and hope that help us connect with the albatross, and make those photos of death - a death that we humans collectively caused - even more difficult to look at. But perhaps now we feel a connection, a sense of responsibility that propels us beyond guilt and grief to a place where we can actually do something about the issue of plastic pollution in the oceans.
It's an interesting and critical topic to ponder. How do we get people to care about environmental issues, many of which are so enormous and complicated that we don't even know where to begin? I think it all comes back to the idea that people care about what they know. That is the premise behind my writing on this blog, and the reason I started it in the first place. To start here at home, working within my (admittedly small) sphere of influence to encourage people to get outside and explore the wonders of nature here in the Pacific Northwest, to develop a connection with this place and the wildlife with which we share it that goes beyond casual appreciation of cute animals, mountains, forests and ocean. To make people understand the myriad environmental issues which threaten this place we call home, and how their own individual actions can either improve or worsen those issues. To bring these seemingly distant environmental issues right back home and give us all a reason to care... and hopefully turn that caring into action.

Check out the Environmental Issues and Going Green pages of this blog for more information on these problems and solutions, respectively.

The sassy Anna's hummingbird that likes to scold everyone from the vine maple outside my window.

Related posts:

Nature Nerd Wednesdays - Earth Day Edition

Reasons to Care


  1. Lainey, you knocked it out of the park with this beautiful, soul-searching post. Yes, how to get people to really really care, to do something, take action. I blogged about a beach clean-up I did last year on the Olympic Coast, and all the plastic we found. Since then I am increasingly concerned about our heedless manufacture and use of plastics. We need a global mandate! Keep up your lyrical, thoughtful writing. People are listening.

    1. Thanks so much, Jill! I really appreciate the encouragement. :) This really is a tough question. I've found that many people don't act on environmental issues because of the simple fact that they're unaware such issues even exist, so I'm trying to do my part to spread the word on this blog and help people to see that this planet we've got is pretty amazing and worth protecting.

      I'll have to look up your blog post about the beach clean-up!