New handbook explains how to advocate for the environment » Yale Climate Connections

“Listen, listen, and listen.”

This instruction appears as a big bold subheading near the end of the first part of ‘Advocating for the Environment.’ There it applies to the process of pulling together a vision of what one wants to accomplish. Really, though, the instruction summarizes the entire book: To be an effective advocate, one must first become a very good listener.

Advocating for the Environment: How to Gather Your Power and Take Action” is the work of Susan B. Inches, herself a longtime advocate who has held positions both inside and outside government, mostly in Maine.

With an undergraduate degree in human ecology from the College of the Atlantic and an MBA from the University of New Hampshire, Inches initially had set her sights on a career in marketing. Then she took a job with the Maine Department of Marine Resources, where, she explained in an email exchange, she discovered that “advocacy is just selling ideas instead of products.”

“I realized I could make a big difference at the senior policy level in state government and was promoted to Deputy Director of the State Planning Office [for Maine]. In my 14 years in state government, I got to study many groups and public processes, and I learned a great deal about what works and what doesn’t.” 

Although “Advocating” includes personal anecdotes, it is unmistakably a practical guide or handbook. In it, Inches pulls together current thinking from many different disciplines – psychology, political science, journalism, communication, and visual communication. And she draws from all of them in single-mindedly addressing the task of changing people’s, especially Americans’, relationship with the environment. This reviewer knows of no other book that combines political-psychological perspective with concrete, step-by-step instructions for environmental activism.

Think differently about how things work

To change people’s relationship with the environment, Inches argues, one must first “learn to think differently,” the subheading for the first part of the book. And that work starts with (re)listening to the stories humans have told about the way the world works – for these stories about success and value typically leave out the environment.

Successful advocacy means speaking in terms that others can understand and appreciate, Inches writes, something one can do only after listening carefully to how they describe their lives and express their values.

That interpretive work can be aided by listening for indications of world views. Here Inches draws on the work of cognitive linguist and philosopher George Lakoff, who characterizes the differences between conservative and liberal thinking by comparing them with the strict father versus nurturing models of parenting.

Finally, one needs to understand how government works at different levels – local, state, and federal – and the ways actors in those roles are influenced by political parties, business interests, the media, and the public. Again here listening, ideally with an ear trained by an insightful and accessible handbook, is necessary.

Only with a practical understanding of what they want to do can advocates devise and execute a strategy, she insists. This work is the focus of the second half of Inches’ book, “Gather Your Power and Take Action.”

Key steps in the process: research, perseverance, drafting, selling

In her first meeting with her boss on her first day of work with Maine’s Department of Marine Resources, Susan Inches was given a confusing piece of advice: “The first thing you need to know is that there are federal fish and there are state fish.” By this, he meant that Maine could formulate fishing policies and practices only for state fish, for fish caught within three miles of its shoreline. What happened more than three miles from the shore was not under the jurisdiction of Maine’s Department of Marine Resources. The takeaway for advocates: Don’t waste time urging policymakers to do something they can’t do.

If, for example, you’re trying to get your state’s colleges and universities to divest from fossil fuels, Inches has explained to students at the different institutions where she has taught, then first determine whether these decisions are made by the boards of trustees for the university, by pension fund managers, or by state legislators.

Like fishing, advocacy requires perseverance. In her book, Inches recalls campaigns that took years, even decades, to yield results. It took seven years for Maine’s Working Waterfront Coalition to pass legislation that increased access to fishing, aquaculture, and boating businesses. It took eight years, and the electoral defeat of the governor, for a coalition of environmental groups to get a statewide plastic bag ban passed and implemented. While stymied at the state level, the activists worked with individual towns and cities. Train for the long haul.  

Sometimes the work of changing policies starts by changing how key stakeholders see the problem advocates want to address. Inches describes fact-finding trips she organized to Denmark and Japan for independent fishing operations and for community groups trying to reorganize their utilities. By seeing what was possible elsewhere, these groups could imagine new ways of solving their problems in Maine.

That still leaves the work of crafting a plausible policy and “selling” it to the legislators and administrators who would first have to approve and then implement change. And that may require years of work communicating with the public, the business community, and the media.

Inches devotes each part of every chapter in this second section of the book to describing a step in the process and then explaining how to complete it. Toward that end, she provides samples of meeting agendas, letters to editors, and legislative testimonies. Appendices at the end of the book include templates for press releases, fact sheets, FAQs, and talking points. Inches also describes, from personal experience, what it’s like to testify before a legislative committee, organize a community meeting, and research and write a white paper.

Focus on adverse climate impacts … or on positives from taking action?

For advocacy on climate change, in particular, Inches offers well-researched advice on framing and visual communication. Highlighting the negative consequences of inaction on climate change, she explains in one example, is generally more effective than highlighting the possible gains of action. 

The ultimate goal of environmental advocacy, in Inches’ view, is creating a society that can function effectively and equitably in harmony with nature. About this long-term goal she is reassuringly upbeat. In fact, she ends the book with eight reasons to be optimistic, including this silver lining for the dark clouds hanging over our politics: “The current disruptions may be our best opportunity in years.” 

“Advocating for the Environment” was published just weeks before the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act. A very big opportunity, indeed. But as climate experts Hal Harvey and Justin Gillis noted in a recent New York Times op-ed, the incentives the bill provides will not, by themselves, make things happen.

Local school boards must decide to replace their diesel-fueled school buses. Public utility commissions must mandate that electricity companies adopt clean energy technologies. And city and state governments must install the thousands of new charging stations needed for the transition to electric vehicles. Without smart advocacy at appropriate levels of government, the incentives in the Inflation Reduction Act cannot deliver the desired reductions in carbon pollution. Knowing how to advocate for the environment has never been more important.

The passion and goodwill Susan B. Inches brings to that task are evident in her clearly written book. And, she reports at its end, she feels well rewarded for her efforts: every day feels like a bracing new challenge.

With her book, she shares that passion for building a better world.

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