What to Say to Someone Who Doesn’t Care About Nature: The Difficult and Powerful Words that Might Matter

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A man I know blindsided me yesterday. He said he agreed with the Trump administration’s proposal to open the arctic and offshore waters for drilling. I was shocked because, like many of us, I primarily talk to people I already agree with and I had assumed that this man would be appalled.

I tried making arguments about the ecological value of the waters. I tried pointing out that, as we keep finding out the hard way, everything is far more connected than we realize: DDT decimates songbirds, pollution in one place affects the climate in another. We can’t predict the ways that drilling in or paving over a place may harm other ecosystems or humans.

Nothing either one of us said was changing the other’s mind. We were growing angrier and more distant. After the conversation, and after failing to persuade, I realized that I hadn’t said what, perhaps, might have made a small difference. What I should have done is told a story--a deeply personal and honest story--that revealed why I care about protecting our earth.

Humans learn from and are inspired by stories. (For a bibliography of how storytelling persuades, visit The Leadership Story Lab). People seem significantly more likely to remember facts told in stories than facts standing alone, more likely to connect with each other through stories, and to be more persuaded by stories than by facts alone. A particular kind of story--a story that explains why we care--is especially effective at motivating action, as Simon Sinek convincingly showed in Start With Why. Sinek demonstrates that “people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”

Image courtesy of tiramisustudio at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

To be sure, I am not arguing that we should ignore the substantial scientific, economic, or health-related reasons to protect the natural world. Far from it. I am saying that we need all the tools of persuasion we can muster: we need arguments about the economic, historic, and traditional value of places; arguments that nature and life are worth protecting for their own sake; arguments that there is existential value in knowing that special places and species exist; and arguments about interdependence and that human health depends on a healthy earth. We need all of this, and we need the personal stories, the ones that are especially hard to tell to people who don’t agree with us.

Telling my story would have been uncomfortable because fully explaining why I care would have required me to speak words that are rare and even embarrassing in our fast modern lives. Words like mystery, connection, awe, wonder, love, and maybe even sacred. But we need to start talking about these things because they are why we act and how we might inspire others to act. This is I wish I’d said yesterday:

My dad and I used to go backpacking in the mountains of Northern New Mexico. Like many fathers and daughters, we sometimes struggled to connect, especially when I was a teenager. I tried to get interested in the stock market, dutifully reading Dividends Don’t Lie, but it never stuck. He watched Friends with me, but I doubt he cared or would have chosen it on his own. He pushed me to do more physics problems and to stay away from boys. I resisted. I was snarky and obnoxious and once stopped speaking to him for days.

All that began to melt away when we bought maps, charted a trip, packed trail mix, and made sure the matches would stay dry. We stuffed our packs and weighed them, marveling at how much we needed for just a few days. When we began to walk, the residue of our sticky, contentious daily lives disappeared. It was completely gone by the end of the first mile.

Mostly we walked silently. Sometimes one of us would stop to watch a hawk or notice a mushroom or point out some Indian Paintbrush blooming trailside. We watched the sky a lot, for in those days it usually rained in the afternoons. (The afternoon monsoons are not as reliable now.) We always hoped to have camp set up by the time the clouds cracked open, but we often missed that mark and hiked with ponchos draped over our heads and packs. We didn’t mind. The greens and browns deepened with the rain, the sounds got cleaner, too. I felt comforted and fully awake at the same time, walking quietly through the rain.

One August we went to Beatty’s Cabin, a wide sloping meadow with long grasses, bounded on one side by a stream and on the other by pines, the trail running through its center. It was a named for Mr. Beatty who had built his cabin here many years ago. We imagined the courage and skill it must have taken for him to come here alone, without maps or modern camping equipment, not knowing when or whether he would find a decent place to stay. We thought that Mr. Beatty had fared quite well in the end, to stop here in this vast beautiful meadow by this clean, fresh water.

After dinner, we decided to watch for elk. The conditions seemed right: the meadow looked like it should be heaven to a grazer; we hadn’t seen another human for hours; and the light was fading to violet, the time we knew the animals might emerge from wherever they’d passed the hot afternoon. We climbed to the top of the hill where the pines began again and would hide us a little. We sat, backs against the trees, and watched and listened. It didn’t feel like waiting, though. Whether or not an elk came, everything already was complete. We listened to the stream rushing over the rocks. The wind cruised through the trees. To this day, I feel safe and home when I hear wind in mountain trees. The air got cold surprisingly quickly after the warm afternoon, and it dried the sweat that had soaked our shirts, chilling us. We watched the night come, the air crisp in our lungs, resting our tired legs. The sky darkened, the first bright stars appeared in the sky. It was time to go back to camp and put out the fire. The elk never came, but we weren’t disappointed. It felt as though, for a moment, my head was safely and securely tethered to my heart. I felt whole. Healed. Alive.

Perhaps humans cannot be whole without wild places. The wilds remind us that there is vastness and hope and connection in this world. We ask big questions and we get big answers. It was listening to snails that prompted Mary Oliver to ask in “Snails,” “Who are we? What are our chances? Where have we made the terrible mistake we must turn from, or perish?” These are questions we all need to ask, maybe more now than ever. So to explain why I care about protecting our world requires stories and, yes, soul-talk, which is uncomfortable. But maybe, as Rachel Carson wrote in The Sense of Wonder, when understanding our natural world and why it matters, “it is not half so important to know as to feel.”

It’s worth figuring out your own stories. Not only will they help you respond to people who do not fight for nature (but who, if they dig deep, probably have their own stories), but they might also inspire you. Examining your stories might help you take the less convenient path when you are faced with choices. Maybe you’ll write to your Congressperson instead of just “liking” an article; maybe you’ll lug around your reusable water bottle or tell the waiter that you don’t want a straw.

My acquaintance, in arguing that Trump got it right, said that everybody benefits from fossil fuel and good roads, resources that help us do important things like get to the hospital quickly. Here’s the thing—and it’s why I hope you’ll find your stories and have the courage to tell them: there’s no point in getting to the hospital if there is nothing wild left.

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