Why Creating Activists Doesn’t Work

This one may sting a little. It was hard to write.

Diving is an amazing sport. I don’t care why you do it. Everyone’s got their reasons and every reason is valid. I’m really just happy you’re here! I mean, what better way to interact with other humans in the technology age than to go 40 feet below water and not have to speak to them? That’s a joke guys….come on!

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Some people start for something to do. A new adventure. Others dive to take their photography to the next level. Some dive to study marine life. The military dives to better defend the nation. Public safety personnel dive to better serve the populace.

Once we start diving and see firsthand things we knew conceptually, but didn’t know emotionally, things begin to change. We begin to see how the things above affect those things below. We experience things firsthand that many, many people will NEVER experience. We become connected to the future of the underwater world because we can no longer ignore it.

Consequently, I get asked a lot why there isn’t more conservation activism among the dive community. Personally, I think there’s a lot already but it doesn’t seem to quite go far enough for some people. There is an awful lot of money being thrown at the issues of plastic in the ocean, climate change, wildlife conservation, species protection, the list goes on….but is it enough to see systemic change? Well, it’s getting there.

A quick disclaimer. I’m not an expert on this topic. I don’t play one on the internet. I’m still learning about diving in general, let alone something as weighty as saving the oceans. These are just some ideas from an ol’ Indiana boy fresh from the cornfields.

I didn’t grow up near the water, but I understand conservation. I’m a Hoosier, so let’s use deer as an example. Each year the Indiana Department of Natural Resources takes stock of the deer population and determines how healthy and robust it is for each county. Then they set limits on how many deer can be harvested by hunters. Let’s leave gun activism at the door please and stay on track. Hunting is used as a control on the deer population to prevent them from becoming a nuisance. The healthier the deer herd, the more can be harvested. If for some reason, the health of the herd starts declining, The DNR tightens up and restricts the number of deer tags they issue.

A similar thing is going on with lionfish as we speak. Everybody knows they’re invasive and will sting you. For most, that’s reason enough to go after them but they happen to be quite tasty as well. Bonus! So, we know conservation works. Could we possibly be allowing other issues to divide us?

My first thought about why “creating activists” doesn’t work is simple: Not many people want to jump in the ring and argue about the methods. The reason most ideas don’t get past the “Yeah, let’s do something!” stage is because of this reason alone. The cause is soon forgotten and the method gets all the press. There are two kinds of people in the world. People who please methods and people who please results. I think we can all agree that results are what we’re after. As to methods there are many. Principles are few. Let’s spend some more time working out the principles and coming to a consensus there. THEN we can choose our methods responsibly. (Hopefully with less cuss and more discuss!)

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Another thing that comes to mind is labels. Human beings like things to fit in the box. Country. R&B. Rock. Good. Bad. Pretty. Ugly. Rec. Tec. Cave. This is understandable. It’s even necessary to our psyches I’m quite sure. A second observation about activism are the images that get conjured up when you hear the word. Is it fists in the air at a march? The quiet opposition of a sit in? Tiananmen square? Donating money to a cause? Going out and doing the work? Being politically involved? Maybe the word activism has been used in conjunction with behaviors that many people consider to be radical and as such, do not want to identify with. To some, this isn’t an issue. Others may find it distasteful. Being an “activist” may cause someone to be perceived in a way they don’t like. Managing perception when you want people to be on your side can’t be understated. The issue could simply be that people don’t want to be called an “activist” because it has a negative connotation to them. Can you blame them?

This next thought is one that people don’t talk about much. I think they know it intuitively but maybe can’t express it. Take money as an example. Most people have never seen $100,000 cash. Like all at once. Sitting on a table. Neatly stacked and strapped. Maybe you are one of the lucky few who has. Have you seen a million? A million seconds is 11.57 days. A billion seconds is 11,574 days or 31.71 YEARS. The economies of scale at work here are insane. My point is this: eight million metric tonnes of plastic ended up in the oceans in 2010. I can’t grok that guys. Most people can’t envision it. We’ve never seen it. It’s like the tooth fairy to most of the world. Without a yardstick to measure against, how can someone get emotionally involved with it?

Kind of makes you feel sorry for those poor souls elected to Congress. They’ve never seen a million cash and they have to impact trillions of dollars. Puts things in perspective don’t you think?  

So, how do we get involved? I don’t know what the answer is to be honest. I submit to you, it starts by being excellent to each other. We all have a tendency to take things personally when we discuss issues we care about. But like Patrick Swayze in Roadhouse, we need to be nice. That’s easier said than done. When you talk about something really big and somewhat onerous to fathom like climate change, you can argue there isn’t time for niceties. Things need to change right now to impact it….and you may be right. But changing an entire nation’s (or world’s!) perspective on it takes more than a well thought out article with cited sources. It takes time and education. It takes effort. It takes breaking down the issues at hand so they are easily understandable. It takes consistency in delivering the message. It takes understanding WHY the message isn’t being received.

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And about that message... How is it being framed? I can easily be turned off by the wrong message. Or more to the point, even if I agree with the message, I can be completely shut off by its delivery. For instance, I love being sold to. I know, this sounds nuts. I love going to a men’s store and looking for a suit and having a professional salesperson make suggestions. You would probably prefer this style. Your neck looks like a 16 1/2 and shoulders at a 42. That shirt doesn’t work for you, try this. The colors here compliment each other. When it’s time to make the buying decision, they clam up. Whoever speaks first, loses.

The opposite can happen though. They can sell me the suit because that’s what I came in for, but it won’t feel good. You know when you’re getting the old hard sell, complete with tie down questions like, “how does that sound?”  or “fair enough?” If you pull the trigger on it, you just feel kind of slimy. I may agree that I need the suit, but I really disliked the delivery. Framing the message with the end goal in mind - “What am I trying to accomplish?” And “How will it be recieved?” - are super important.

So, anyway... we didn’t solve the world’s problems or anything but I wanted to share some thoughts. I could be way off base here. What do you think?

Until next time: Be Excellent to Each Other