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WITTs, YOYOs, and Why Americans Don't Go Green
Joel Makower, 23 Oct 06

The question of how to engage Americans on pressing environmental issues is a perennial one. Arguably, environmental activist groups haven't made much traction. After more than 35 years since the birth of the modern environmental movement, the major green nonprofits cumulatively engage only 3 million to 4 million Americans -- the roughly 1% of Americans who appear on the groups' mailing lists.

It's no wonder, then, that the environment ranks near the bottom of issues about which Americans are concerned. And it explains why environmentally proactive political candidates don't run on those issues -- and why conservative politicians, as a rule, can run roughshod over the planet with impunity.

A group called ecoAmerica -- "the first environmental non-profit with a core expertise in consumer marketing" -- is looking to change all that. Armed with a half-million dollars in market research and out-of-the-box -- for enviros, at least -- thinking, the group hopes to engage "environmentally agnostic" Americans to support green causes "as a personal and public policy priority."

I've just attended the group's briefing on the high-level findings of its extensive study of Americans' environmental attitudes. It's fascinating stuff, but it also points up the serious obstacles faced by activists -- as well as green marketers in the private sector -- in getting Americans to align their actions with their innate desire to make the world a better place.

Over the past year, ecoAmerica and SRI Consulting developed a 240-item mail survey that focused on measuring Americans' attitudes. It used the VALS classification system, which "explains the relationship between personality traits and consumer behavior," according to its creator:

VALS uses psychology to analyze the dynamics underlying consumer preferences and choices. VALS not only distinguishes differences in motivation, it also captures the psychological and material constraints on consumer behavior.

The findings of the research are too detailed to do justice here. But here are some big-picture takeaways:

  • There is no common agreement on what environmental concern means or what to do about it. To the extent Americans are concerned, they are concerned about widely divergent environmental issues, from global problems to local ones to their ability to hunt, fish, swim, hike, and canoe. This diffusion of knowledge, perspectives, and interests makes it hard to gain credibility, let alone achieve consensus on most issues.

  • Libertarian values are gaining over communal ones. Jaren Bernstein of the Economic Policy Institute has described two competing mindsets that affect politics and the environment: "We're In This Together" (WITT) and "You're On Your Own" (YOYO). (Linguist George Lakoff describes a similar divergence between the conservative right, which values self-reliance and self-responsibility, and the liberal left, which favors caring, empathy, cooperation, and growth.)

    The environmental community -- and most green marketers -- lean pretty strongly toward the communal, WITT side of the house, a position at odds with the political zeitgeist, at least as practiced for the past quarter century by the YOYO Republican Party. Clearly, there's a need for more "macho" (in Lakoff's terms) marketing -- the notion of man as protector, and of personal responsibility to protect families, communities, and the planet.

  • Environmental complexity is paralyzing. In the early days of the modern environmental movement, ecological issues were pretty easy to understand: a company spewed waste into a river. You could see it and smell it and the impact was local, immediate, and often acute. Today's biggest environmental problems -- climate, species extinction, depleting fisheries, etc. -- are quite the opposite: they are hidden, global, long-term, and chronic. And many environmental challenges involve multiple steps: droughts cause a species to migrate, causing a chain reaction resulting in the death of a forest, for example. Those cause-and-effect relationships are tough to grok, even for the knowledgeable.

    As a result, activists and marketers need to shun intellectual discussions and not expect people to make big behavioral changes today in order to gain environmental benefits tomorrow. It's important to demonstrate the "cost" of environmental problems to individuals, families, and communities, and to show how problems can be addressed through simple, incremental changes in behavior -- if, indeed, that is a realistic solution.

  • Pocketbook environmentalism is powerful. Consumer behavior, not political behavior, may be an easier route to get buy-in and to change environmentally damaging behaviors. Unlike pure environmental appeals -- which often bump up against everything from ignorance to apathy -- there is immediate understanding and concern about things that affect our pocketbooks. Sad to say, any product, action, or behavior that can potentially save money is a far bigger motivator than one that can save the planet.

    One potential pathway for messagers and marketers is to help consumers understand the hidden costs in products and services that are not environmentally friendly, such as incandescent light bulbs or inefficient cars. This is admittedly tough -- it's harder to sell something by pointing out the shortcomings of the competition -- but it could help make environmental issues relevant and understandable.

    There's more. The ecoAmerica research found that even the most environmentally sympathetic Americans have competing priorities; that environmentalism is hampered by anti-science and anti-intellectual attitudes; and that men and women have very different environmental concerns -- three additional challenges for those trying to reach Americans with environmental messages.

    The bottom line, says ecoAmerica: "We have an image problem." Environmentalists seem disconnected from most Americans. Indeed, many Americans view the environmental movement as traditional, dated, and somewhat out of touch with current society.

    That's ironic perhaps. Many environmentalists I know believe they have a better understanding of the state of the world than do other people. And they might. But that's of little consequence. The millions of Security Moms and NASCAR Dads who haven't yet tuned into how climate change and fisheries loss might mess with their kids' future aren't about to be beaten into submission by the latest arguments or evidence. They're not about to make purchase decisions based on a maybe-someday rationale for stemming environmental problems. They want to know: what's in it for me, today?

    So, big news: Americans are shallow, misinformed, self-interested, and unsophisticated. But they're our neighbors, our colleagues, and our relatives. And they're likely your clients, customers, or constituents. If you want to move them toward greener behavior and actions, you'll need to deal -- carefully and creatively -- with all of these sobering realities.

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    Fantastic information, this is a huge issue. I would respond that working effectively with environmental issues is a security issue and can also be a community issue. In one country (Germany or Denmark), there was a wonderful "keep up with the Joneses" effect in recycling and composting, working very much within the conservative, YOYO frame. And of course there is the excellent point that having control of our own energy and food destinies is essential to maintain national sovereignty and freedom.
    Tim Beatley and Tanya Denckla Cobb have been doing some great work with their Community Food Systems course at the University of Virginia on this subject. I've never seen a course get so much media coverage and buzz before. People really get food security. They care where it comes from, they care if it's healthy and safe.
    Energy doesn't seem to have quite the same pull with the public, but I think that the more Americans understand that energy independence means security from terrorism, the greener we'll get.

    Posted by: Lyle Solla-Yates on 23 Oct 06

    I'd love to see an energy independence campaign with the slogan: "OIL: Good for race cars, bad for security" Get a bunch of NASCAR stars out there with Willie Nelson and farmers, some windmills in the background, maybe some CIA guys. People would love it. I'm getting ads on the radio from NASCAR drivers about boy scouts. How about green energy?

    Posted by: Lyle Solla-Yates on 23 Oct 06

    I'd love to see an energy independence campaign with the slogan: "OIL: Good for race cars, bad for security" Get a bunch of NASCAR stars out there with Willie Nelson and farmers, some windmills in the background, maybe some CIA guys. People would love it. I'm getting ads on the radio from NASCAR drivers about boy scouts. How about green energy?

    Posted by: Lyle Solla-Yates on 23 Oct 06

    Clearly, there's a need for more "macho" (in Lakoff's terms) marketing -- the notion of man as protector, and of personal responsibility to protect families, communities, and the planet.

    I'm struggling with why this is supposed to be "clear." I agree fully that the concept of environmental stewardship is the way to go in engaging conservative, and even religious, groups in environmental activities. However, returning to the notion of the macho man in control of these things is a gigantic step backward in terms of all kinds of social factors. And besides, eliminating half the population from her role as environmental steward can hardly be good for the planet.

    Just what we need -- a return to the 50s mentality of the male protector. Let's not forget that the environmental movement was born at the same time as the second wave of the feminist movement.

    Posted by: Kim on 23 Oct 06

    Oh don't worry, Tom Friedman will save the environment with his macho Mustache of Understanding.

    YOYO and WITT can play off each other on energy as others have pointed out. I say Solar Is Civil Defense and have a set of small-scale solar devices that prove it. Couple that with the kind of telecom security techniques David Stephenson is writing about and you've got a civilian-based civil defense, homefront security system with real teeth.

    Actual WWII poster slogan: Should brave men die so you can drive?

    How's that for macho marketing?

    Posted by: gmoke on 23 Oct 06

    The tired traditional rational approach has indeed failed and our society continues on the path of increasingly unfettered libertarian capitalism. This is not news.

    Sure appealing to the Ayn Rand interpretation of enlightened self-interest sounds good in theory as an environmental strategy and cowboy macho is in.

    Yet there seem to be some very robust barriers that must be breached.

    For instance, recycled paper is typically significantly more expensive than the standard stuff and the payback on most green products such as compact flourescents, hybrid cars, and thorough home insulation and draft reduction are financial losers.

    A simple life cycle analysis of these and so many others make it glaringly apparent that the payback period is inordinate and ultimately the expenditure results in a negative return.

    Until we're able to institute legal and economic policies that recognize the intagible costs of environmental degradation, it will continue to be very difficult to sell those Wal-Mart shopping NASCAR dads and frightened soccer moms. The market system is simply not capable of such change without legal and policy encouragement (a quick literature search of respected economic journals will bear this out).

    Some technical solutions (such as LED) do hold promise. Unfortunately most of the solutions currently touted are fatally flawed.

    Electric cars simply move the pollution around by emmitting CO2 and other pollutants or creating nuclear waste or wiping out entire river ecosystems with dams. Compounding the problem are inefficiencies introduced as we convert the raw energy source (coal, radioactivity, etc.) to mechanical energy to electrical energy then transporting the electricity over long distances charging batteries and powering an electric motor. Energy is lost in each step.

    Hybrids are the source of toxic waste in the manufacture and disposal of batteries and electronic controls systems. Hydrogen fuel cells sound great but where are you going to get all that hydrogen and at what environmental cost.

    I remain optomistic that our forward looking European bretheren and those hearty souls swimming against the current here will continue chipping away at the obstacles.

    Unfortunately in my darker ponderings I find it difficult to imagine mainstream America going green until the populace grows a brain and the environmental values that come with it; It seems a tremendous leap of faith to hope for more politicians with the intellect, awareness and spine to be openly and unabashedly green and proud (Dennis Kucinich comes to mind as a rare example).

    Hope is a virtue and we can only hope and continue the battle.

    This study certainly provides sound evidence for crucial marketing and PR factors to guide us in a more productive direction for the foreseeable future.

    It's been said that the hallmark of a brilliant mind is the ability to assimilate not only that which supports your values but also all of that which is directly in opposition and yet, even in dire looking situations, continuing to work enthusiasticly to forward the cause.

    Stay green and use this information as you spread the word to your YOYO friend, relatives and neighbors. (evangelizing bad...Jedi psychological warfare good)

    Posted by: MtnGuyMark on 23 Oct 06

    Hi Joel,

    Seems not dissimilar from what Shellenberger and Nordhaus were (are?) working to do with Environics.

    Though i largely accept and agree with the premises, short-sightedness has been one of my concerns with this approach. I take it you attended the SF event last week. How would you characterize the goals of this work - to build a *bright green* future, or to cobble together a VALS majority? Not that the two need be mutually exclusive.

    Can you point us to the detailed findings? I don't see them on the ecoAmerica website.


    Posted by: Howard Silverman on 23 Oct 06

    Thanks, Howard, for your comment.

    To be honest, I'm not quite sure how to characterize the goals of this work. The group's work was paid for by Big Green -- the largest environmental groups -- headed by the Sierra Club and Earthjustice. And the ecoAmerica folks were clearly pitching to get the enviros to buy their services in order to more effectively engage, and grow, their constituencies.

    That doesn't strike me as the best and highest use of this material. As someone focused on how the private sector can be a driver for change, I'd prefer to see them use their findings to help move commerce in a more sustainable direction. Maybe they'll do that.

    As for getting access to the data, I think you'll need to contact the group. There was a 16-page booklet handed out at the briefing, but it doesn't seem to be freely downloadable.

    Posted by: Joel Makower on 23 Oct 06

    I like this article... because we are focused on the concept that you have to make the changes be beneficial with todays economy or it will not sell... both in ideas as well as in actual products...

    and since most "green" is not economically viable... it will take a lot to change people... so the best way is education and bringing new cost effective "Green" products to market...

    the how to products... how do you lower you heating costs... how do you make your car more effective...or go without a car in todays US world...these all need to be addressed by policy and the right education so they are addressed...

    this is such a crucial issue that the marketing study is a great path to help all of us understand what is needed...

    there are some good books out there that have addressed this issue as well... Plan B 2.0... being one... but then it is the small things that add up... like giving a coupon discount on green products right at the cash register... etc...

    "there is no or do not" Yoda...

    therefore, if you believe it, it can be done... and so all input is of value...but then actions speak louder than words... what have you done to make yourself or your life style more green...if you care enough you act...

    we need to educate to help people to act... and make it reasonable to take that action...

    Al Gore's movie is a try thing...he did it...with some help... but he ended weak... no ways to really help feel impowered on how to act... what do those who want to do do...??? he was not the salesman... but the ad...

    a good saleman...says what he is selling, sells all the reasons... but then makes sure at his closing, that he again tells what he is selling and how to buy...

    the green movement has only told what they are selling...poorly... and then is only now in the process of describing what the points are on why the customer should act...but nowhere have good sales people really gotten behind and closed the sale with most american people...

    Ok..enough of my rant...but to close a sale,, you have to know what you are selling... and that is too complex...unless you take it one item at a time...and one thing you can do at a time...and unless innovation can come through with worthy products to sell...

    Posted by: Lynn Hunt on 23 Oct 06

    I recently attended, and then was trained to facilitate, something called the "Awakening the Dreamer, Changing the Dream Symposium". This symposium has real power to "wake" people up and get them to change their behavior. Prior to this, I was so resigned that I purposely avoided paying attention to environmental issues and and certainly didn't feel empowered to change my own behaviors even knowing that they weren't healthy for me or the planet.

    Since the Symposium, and particularly since being trained as a facilitator, I have completely changed my attitute as well as my lifestyle. I have a level of hope now that was completely missing and that has made a huge difference in what I am willing to pay attention to and what changes I am willing to make in my life.

    Since the training, I have moved into a group household that is vegetarian, eats mostly local organic food with very little packaging. Before that I ate mostly fast food or "convenience" foods as I lived alone and didn't feel I had time to cook. I pay attention to how much energy I use and I'm making sure I don't need to drive much anymore.

    While I think the study you mentioned has power and can cause us to think how to "market" environmentalism and sustainability to America, I also see no reason to give up hope. Even people who completely seem not to care (such as myself a year ago) can be reached and empowered to change. Keep it up, all you wonderful people. You are making a difference.

    Posted by: Melissa Drakeford on 23 Oct 06

    Joel, Thanks for the article - a great precis on the American Environmental Values Survey. I did want to clarify your subsequent note in the comments ... a) The AEVS was partially funded by big green, but the majority of the funding came from ecoAmerica donors, most of whom are individuals seeking new ways to be effective in environmental protection. b) ecoAmerica is an N4P looking to contribute to solutions, not profit from the problems. The AEVS results will be freely available on our website ( after the round of community and individual briefings are complete in early December.

    Posted by: Bob Perkowitz on 24 Oct 06

    Joel, also on your comment about using the AEVS findings to support sustainable commerce, if you have any thoughts we'd love to hear them. I'm working on the angle through VivaTerra, but there is scant green consumerism of scale beyond organic foods at this point.

    Posted by: Bob Perkowitz on 24 Oct 06

    Stewardship: Though the word denotes a host of kind-seeming meanings—managing, caring, serving, administering, cultivating etc.—there’s a long tradition now of calling into question the connotative meaning of the word and the behaviors that devolve from it. Specifically, the term implies a relationship of hierarchy—of managing resources; as if the latter were forces to be dominated or harnessed. This other tradition understands that all of “us”—meaning the world of humans and our natural world—are part of an interconnected web of life (I can’t believe I’m talking like this in public); and that a more promising and beneficial conception of the relation between humans and the environment is one of reciprocity. In other words, WITT.

    This different conception doesn’t as clearly define the behaviors that evolve from reciprocity as does the stewardship school the behaviors that derive from managing; nor is it clear how this conception may be spun in a branding and marketing campaign. But the concept may well offer another meme to this movement, if this site is any indication of it. Bill McKibben notes this site’s “creativity, digital dexterity, networking ability, […] Internet-era optimism about the future, and [...]deep concern about not only green issues but related questions of human rights, poverty, and social justice.” Read McKibben’s wonderfully nuanced article at NYROB, reprinted at The article references this site!

    Lakoff’s strong father: His analysis of the neocon projection of strong fathers always struck me as granting more sophistication to a campaign that is really more about fear mongering, YOYO mean-spiritedness and bullying than paternal beneficence or strong leadership. I say let’s stick with networking, creativity, agility, connectivity, optimism, reciprocity. Soccer moms (security moms?) can indeed relate to these as branding memes.

    Obligatory citation: Charles Dobson, The Troublemaker’s Teaparty: A Manual for Effective Citizen Action (Vancouver, 2003)

    Posted by: Lauren on 24 Oct 06

    As my late father used to say, "you can raise children to be obedient or you can raise them to have character."

    He meant this in the context of needing character to stand up to authority and do what's right, so that obedience training one's children will create adults who are excessively meek. I raise it here in order to look inclusively at either of the views that represent the conflict between stick and carrot preferences: the strong-father/nurturant-mother Lakoff view or the gender neutral YOYO/WITT variant.

    So, the need is for two messages, one for those who respond to appeals for character and one for those who respond behaviorally:

    (1) The "right" things to do include doing no harm (N-M/WITT) and protecting endowments(S-F/YOYO). So, consume less carbon and offset the carbon you do consume.

    (2) Being a "good person" means tightening one's belt (N-M/WITT crowd) and as "virtue" is measured along a scale of self-sufficiency, it's ideal to not owe anyone anything for carbon usage (S-F/YOYO).

    Posted by: Jessica on 24 Oct 06

    thanks joel for this great piece and for the engaged dialogue. clearly this is one of the topics that hits at the core of how we create change and transformation (lasting change), especially if we are interested in "sustainability in one generation" kind of meme thinking. i was particularly struck by this:

    "points up the serious obstacles faced by activists -- as well as green marketers in the private sector -- in getting Americans to align their actions with their innate desire to make the world a better place."

    how to get people to change their often we think that if we give people enough information, that will be enough for them to change their beliefs enough so that they will change their behavior. but is that how change really happens? there are numerous change theories and practices out there, and which one works. i'd love to see a matrix comparison and best practices piece on that because there is enough divergent thinking out there on this topic, that if we have limited time, limited resources, and need to create radical shifts, i want to use those things that will create incremental transformation at a minimum.

    milton erickson in some of his writing and thinking on multiple intelligences talks about how change happens and talks about (1) context (2) perception (3) beliefs (4) behavior. 3 and 4 may be reversed (can't remember precisely). but basically the jist is that if we want people to change their behavior and beliefs, change their context so that their perception can change.

    a group that has had HUGE success in changing peoples' behavior is the empowerment institute:

    they've got great case studies on their site as well:

    i've met david gershon and was absolutely inspired by a talk/powerpoint he gave at a conference earlier this year up on whidbey island. he's got something going. maybe the folks at ecoamerica and empowerment institute could share their best practices and get something even more amazing happening. this would be good for all of us.

    Posted by: Sheri on 24 Oct 06

    I'm a libertarian and I'm working with the progressives right now. Libertarianism is about rights, sure, BUT - it's also about resposibility. Not just for your own behavior, but for how that behavior affects others and the world around you.

    IT's not about do whatever you want and screw everyone else. It is about acting responsibly and encouring others to be resonsible as well. I'm sick to death of the label libertarian being hijacked to excuse stupid, greedy selfish behavior.


    Posted by: donna on 24 Oct 06

    Fantastic article! I'll be circulating widely. You've summed up and clarified many of my own frustrations and concerns about how to market environmentalism and move it forward.

    One thing I totally disagree with is the "need for more 'macho' (in Lakoff's terms) marketing -- the notion of man as protector...".

    Successful environmentalism is fundamentally about promoting democracy and protecting biodiversity. We need women to step up and be equal decision-makers for this world to be more green, peacable, equitable, and wisely lived in.

    I suggest circles for change:

    And the book 'Calling the Circle' by Christina Baldwin.

    Posted by: LC on 27 Oct 06

    I'll say it again: until environmental activists get over themselves and stop thinking that security moms and NASCAR dads are shallow,superficial, unsophisticated slobs who must be forced,frightened or guilted into doing the right thing, we will continue on the same path to frustration that we have been on for 35 years.Going green can only really take root when we deliver the message that it is easy, aspirational, cool and profitable to be green --- that going green is the fast track to the good life, not a list of things you have to give up or feel bad about.We think the message must be light-hearted,actionable and able to be taken Chinese-menu style with multiple choices for any appetite--- because it is way better to get many people doing a little bit than to keep talking to the same million true believers over and over. And once someone finds that environmental action is not onerous,their one small step leads to others--- and,lo and behold,they stop being the dolts we all labeled them and start to look just as smart as the rest of us.We hope that our site ( and newsletter will deliver a more accessible message than we usually see among environmental purists who often seem eager to point fingers and tolerate only those whose politics pass muster that the vast majority of Americans have been made to feel that saving the earth is a party to which they have not been invited.

    Posted by: Virginia Simpson on 28 Oct 06

    Whoa. It's been a few days now since a comment was posted. I hope the dust has settled and the merged clarity of all the voices I've read here is taking hold. There's some really good stuff here, and I'm sure I'll be up 'til the wee hours trying to soak it all in.

    I'd just like to put one plug in here--a vote of confidence, if you will--for the individual. Because all the actions that all of you envision begin with a 'spark' of acknowledgement and understanding that has to start inside everyone's head. Especially everyone (and that's most everyone, unfortunately) who's still outside the green box that many of us here find ourselves in.

    The idealist in me says this can be done--that, one by one, people will be thus motivated to take action in their home, community, business, or political office--and speak with their wallet or their action. The pragmatist in me says it's a kind of communication we've not yet seen that will cut through the confusion and complexity that Joel and the ecoAmerica folks have aptly put their fingers on.

    But it's not rocket science. Listen to Lakoff. The opposition are not geniuses...they've just done some fundamental things right, and stuck with it. Bottom line, the enlightenment that Joel's post hints at is tremendously exciting. It will happen. I'm working on it. You're working on it. Let's do it together.

    Larry Grob

    Posted by: Larry Grob on 3 Nov 06



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