There's a reason the term "grassroots" is so often applied to environmental movements. It's because they commonly start small, sometimes with just one person who takes note of a drastic need or problem in his or her hometown. For example, the tireless advocate Marjory Stoneman Douglas almost single-handedly brought attention to the destruction of the Everglades.
Unfortunately, some activists and groups end up jumping straight to agitation before trying education. Agitation is sometimes necessary, but you should not necessarily approach those who don't yet share your views as adversaries. After all, if enough people want something, businesses and political leaders will respond.
So how do you make yourself a more effective advocate?
Cold, hard facts are better than red-hot rhetoric. The sight of pesticide-spraying trucks cruising the suburbs at dusk used to be common across America. Unfortunately, because of renewed fears of mosquito-borne viruses like West Nile, the fog of death is making a comeback. The problem is most mosquitoes are harmless to humans, regular spraying can allow mosquito populations to build up resistance, and pesticides also kill off mosquito predators such as amphibians and birds.
Grafton, Massachusetts, was prepared to bring back fogging because of the West Nile virus. Convinced this was unwise, a small community group got the city government to reverse its decision with an approach anyone can use as a model:
- The group demanded verifiable data from the pest-control company who claimed spraying was necessary
- It collected its own data from scientists which backed up suspicions that spraying was both ineffective and potentially harmful
- The group offered an alternative to a problem: Members demonstrated that well-maintained wetlands, where the food chain is in check, actually reduce nuisance mosquito problems
- They took their facts to the press to get their message out.
In the end, the group's well-reasoned approach convinced Grafton residents that their leaders were about to make a bad decision. The leaders changed their minds.
Become an eco-sleuth
Regulations designed to protect the environment may be on the books in your community. But sometimes law enforcement needs help in identifying violations. Arkansas Health Department environmental specialist John Church suspected that leaking septic tanks were polluting Lake Conway. Watching an episode of COPS one night gave him the bright idea to use an infrared camera to detect leaks. He convinced local police to take him up in a helicopter, and using the camera, a map, and a global positioning device, he pinpointed almost 1,000 leaks in three hours.
New York City has since adopted the technique to identify standing pools of water that become urban mosquito breeding grounds, and Church says the system can also be used to detect problems with mines and nuclear plants.
Volunteer for restoration and monitoring projects
The Audubon Society has a project hotline you can call: (847) 965-9239. Also watch local papers and community bulletin boards for opportunities to lend a hand and help improve your own ecosystem.
Organize clean-up events
No matter where you live, there's bound to be an area that is subject to litter, pollution, or neglect. Organizing a regularly scheduled event to clean up a park; to fish debris out of a pond, lake, or river; or to adopt abandoned asphalt and turn it into an urban garden brings the benefits of conservation to people's own backyards and helps make conservation a habit.
Monitor your leaders
The League of Conservation Voters allows you to examine and follow the voting patterns of your elected officials. Given the power of the politician, you'd be wise to watch what they're doing.
And don't think it does no good to write to politicians. They do listen to what voters have to say. For tips on improving your letter-writing skills, and for general advocacy tips, see Learn to be an Advocate.
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