Environmentalists do a great job of preaching to the choir


This is an open letter to Yoga Lady:

Nothing personal, but you’re making it hard to sell the green lifestyle.

I first beheld you a few months ago, gracing the invitations that a local environmental group gave us when we agreed to host an "eat local" party at our house. They were professionally designed invitations featuring eye-catching photos: a waterfall, a trillium and Your Yoganess.

Seated lightly on a mat, clad in yoga togs, serenely holding a difficult if not impossible yoga pose, you caught my eye and won my respect. But, alas, I sadly set aside those invitations, rolled to the computer and pounded on the keyboard for an hour, throwing together our own homemade invitations (minus your picture) and sent them out instead to people in this rural area.

I returned the unused invitations to the environmental group and you dropped out of my life. Until last month, when I bought two of those "Chinook Books" from a co-worker’s daughter. You know, the coupon books that promote environmentally friendly consumer choices in the region, with discounts on everything from organic milk to nontoxic paint to compact fluorescent light bulbs. I picked up one of the books and there you were on the cover.

"Dang," I muttered, trying to hide my disappointment from you. Before we could make eye contact, I slipped the book into my briefcase and mused on my predicament.

I’d bought the books to give to my friends, John the Granola Conservative and George the Bible Study Partner. And therein lay the problem.

Consider John. He’s a dyed-in-the-wool Republican and bottom-line business guy, but our shared love for national parks and land trusts brought us together on conservation projects. Of late, I’d piqued his interest in organic foods and got him hooked on pizza made with local, seasonal ingredients. The Chinook Book offered a perfect vehicle for nudging him farther down the green path by appealing to his "vote with your pocketbook" ethos.

But you scotched the deal. If I’d handed John a Chinook Book with you on the cover, his PC sensors would have gone haywire. All along, my sales pitch had been "green products make good cents." Your presence threatened to fan John’s worst fear — that he was being seduced into something trendy and politically correct.

There’s much the same risk with George. Through a decade of studying the Bible together on Monday nights, I’d pretty much allayed his concern that environmentalism went hand in glove with woo-woo spirituality. "The Good Book says your body is a temple, right?" I’d press him. "Well, organic foods are the best way to shore up the temple." But your picture threatened to undermine my message.

You’ll recall, of course, that your photo on the Chinook Book (as well as on the invitation) showed you pressing your palms together in what looks for all the world like a prayerful gesture. If the Chinook Book also featured Genuflecting Lady or even Speaking in Tongues Guy, then I would have had a fallback position: "No worries, George. They honor all faiths equally." But no such luck. By occupying center stage alone, you forced me to ditch the Chinook Book and search instead for another tack to try with George.

Maybe this figure of speech is outside your experience, but I’m sick of preaching to the choir. Meaning, we enviros waste too much effort making our pitch to the hip, secular and liberal who are already within the green consensus. Thanks to the superb efforts of the best green minds, the Chinook Book offered the promise of putting entry-level sustainable living within reach of every shopper. In its 191 pages, Chinook Book makes a compelling case for locally based consumerism.

But then the folks who created the coupon book limited its usefulness by making you their cover girl. Sorry, you play well in Portland’s chic Pearl District, but you bomb in "red vote" rural counties and in ChurchLand. For the good of the green cause, please find another job.

We who call ourselves environmentalists really need to learn how to talk to people who aren’t just like us.

Bill Cook is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He is a writer in Lake Oswego, Oregon.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.