Reaching a Broader Audience: American Values, not Environmentalist Values
There are a million ways to put Americans into categories. We can sort people by gender, age, class or race. We can divide people as urban vs. rural, white collar vs. blue collar or believer vs. atheist. Politicians, advertisers and public opinion pollsters like to group people together into categories in order to draw conclusions and guess future behaviors. This is how businesses know where to place ads and politicians can predict who will vote for them.
But in 2012, perhaps the most predictive way to classify Americans is Democrat vs. Republican.
According to the Pew Research Center’s June 2012 report on trends in American values, political party affiliation provides the greatest values gap in Americans today—more than gender, age, class or race. According to the report, Americans’ “values and basic beliefs are more polarized along partisan lines than at any point in the past 25 years.”
A value is an unchanging part of who we are. It is how we define ourselves and a big part of how we make decisions. Values are formed from experiences, parents, teachers, friends, habits and religious beliefs. They are formed over time and are not easily shaken or changed. Because our behaviors and choices stem from our values, politicians, advertisers and environmentalists must understand an audience’s values and connect to those values in order to influence the audience.
The Pew report shows that the gap between Democratic and Republican views on the need to do more to protect our environment is the largest it has ever been. In 1987, the gap between the two parties was just five points. Now it is 39 points.
As this gap widens, we have to be smarter about how we talk about the environment and encourage environmental action. We can’t just appeal to environmentalists. Nor can we just give information about the problem and assume that people will change because of it. Just because environmental advocates see an innate benefit to natural space and biodiversity, that doesn’t mean other people do. Their values are just different.
But just because their values are different, that doesn’t mean they won’t adopt the environmentally-friendly behaviors that we want them to. Instead of talking about the sacredness of nature or animal rights, we must instead connect environmental actions with values like concern for family and regional pride.
For example, instead of trying to inspire families to visit local nature preserves by talking about the diversity of plant life or the rareness of the habitat, emphasize the chance to spend time with your kids away from the computer screen or iPod. Talk about the chance to play and explore and get dirty, just like the parents used to when they were young. Or talk about the educational opportunities at the nature center. If the parents aren’t inherently interested in conservation, then the plant life or rare habitat won’t appeal to them. But, parents from across the political spectrum value caring for their kids, spending time together and giving our kids the best education possible. And nostalgia for our own childhoods is common all around the country.
The widening gap between Democrats and Republicans on environmental issues simply means that we can’t just talk in the typical environmentalist way. We will not achieve lasting behavior changes, pass laws or secure funding unless we appeal to people in both parties. Therefore, we must relate all environmental issues to true American values, not just environmentalist values.
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