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Is social media hurting the environmental movement?

Posted on November 26, 2009 and read 2,059 times

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marcstoiber Is social media hurting the environmental movement?Marc Stoiber

At a green brand conference this summer, I witnessed something incredible. It wasn’t the speakers, although they were inspiring in their own right.  It was the audience that caught my eye. About 90% of them never looked at the stage – instead, they were rapid-typing the content of the speeches into their tweets or blog entries. I was impressed, thinking I was witnessing a glorious mass communication revolution.

That is, until I peeked over some shoulders and saw what they were typing. There were posts like “Speaker says green is here to stay.” And “Green is good for business.” A pretty anemic version of what was actually being said.

Then it dawned on me. These audience members were so intent on flexing their social media muscles, they were missing out on 95% of the message. Technology had turned them into stenographers – and not particularly good stenographers at that.  There was no synthesis, no analysis, no thinking. I’m certain each of the writers felt they were making a difference. But they were, in fact, adding little more than chatter. And that, I believe, is a problem. The movement to fight climate change does not benefit from a fire hose of superfluous communication. It needs focus.

I’m not a Luddite. I understand and admire the power of social media, and believe the world is a better place for it. Social media provides shades of content; it’s visceral and raw; it’s authentic (well, usually); it can help me instantly connect with like-minded thinkers.

That said, it doesn’t replace real action, real human connection and commitment. Becoming a fan of Al Gore’s Facebook page may make me feel like I belong, but it isn’t doing a damn thing to save the world. It does, however, reflect a disturbing phenomenon. We have become a society that is deathly afraid of being left out. We somehow feel better knowing we have hundreds of people following our tweets. We feel comforted by all our Facebook friends and fans. Substituting real friends and family with the online variety speaks volumes about the isolation technology can enable. Unfortunately, this isolation is the exact opposite of what the environmental movement needs.

David Suzuki says a major contributor to environmental destruction is our disconnection from each other, and the environment. He calls it the shattered world syndrome. To illustrate, imagine our society is like safety glass that’s been shattered. Each of us occupies a tiny shard – physically close to our neighbour, but disconnected.

When we turn on the tap, we don’t know where the water came from. When we flush the toilet, we don’t know where the water goes to. When we get the clarion call to make our contribution and fight climate change, we pull back into our cocoon and start retweeting. It’s not that retweeting is bad. But again, it seems pretty anemic when you think of what’s necessary in the fight against climate change. What I believe we need to rediscover is a sense of commitment to our fellow earth-dweller.

Studies show that the number one reason people enlist in the armed services isn’t for government or country. It’s because their friend or brother enlisted. That’s strong stuff. People will enlist to potentially sacrifice their lives because their sibling or friend did. Imagine if we could harness that sort of action for the environmental movement.

Truth is, we can. I would sacrifice plenty for my friends or family. I’m certain you would, too.

It’s time we all rediscovered the power of that sort of commitment. Instead of sitting in front of our screen, we should be jumping on our bikes with our kids, getting involved in public forums with our friends, looking politicians in the eye and telling them that our families are a force to be reckoned with.

We have to live the mission. Not type it.

Marc Stoiber is founder of Change, a green innovation brand agency in Vancouver, Canada. You can reach him at




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