This isn't the first time that an environmental wave has ebbed, but the risk this time is that the retreat will be not just to indifference, but to resignation. It's hard to imagine another wave being created by awareness-driven advertising or a Nobel Prize-inspiring documentary.
Yet, the challenge remains: How do we get people to choose more sustainable products and services? How do we reduce energy and resource consumption? How do we get people to really change? With awareness-advertising a spent force, we are left with two things that could move people: 1) calamity and 2) engagement.
Let's start with the negative. Perhaps the only thing that will now motivate people to change is significant, dramatic environmental collapse. Like, say, the Greenland ice shelf sliding into the Atlantic, causing a dramatic rise in sea levels across the globe; or, bees suddenly dying off, with mass famine ensuing. Would this stimulate change? With new deepwater drilling about to resume in the Gulf of Mexico just one year after the largest accidental marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry, it would seem that the scale of the calamity would have to be truly (unfathomably?) unprecedented.
The other option is more positive -- and ultimately more powerful. If it's true that the traditional environmental movement has converted a core segment of the population, and that this group has expanded somewhat through the awareness-driven approach of the past half-decade, then we should harness the power of these people to reach others. But this will require a shift in strategy, now.
We need to redirect money from television ads to town hall meetings. We need to change the message from feel-good to do-good, by making it possible for the already converted to share simple first actions with friends and neighbors. Instead of overlooking small NGOs that are engaged in micro-projects at the local level, we need to develop tools and networks that allow them to connect with each other and expand their reach.
This may sound complicated, but what we are really talking about is placing faith back in an approach that has been at the heart of social change for centuries (face-to-face, person-to-person conversation). We need to make it possible for people to talk to each other again, to instill a sense of purpose and hope in a common project: Making the world a better place for everyone.
It may seem counterintuitive to "preach to the choir" instead of trying to reach new audiences directly. But the fact is that the big-media approach alone can only take us so far. There is a ready chorus to extend this reach by making local action fun, relevant and personal. All we need to do is provide the words, include diverse voices and lead the melody.