Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Not Alone
distributed 4/13/07 - ©2007

We humans are social creatures. We want -- even need -- to be part of a community. We want to fit in. That shapes the way that we deal with new ideas and new situations.

It is hard, really hard, to speak up if you think you're the only one in a group who holds an idea or belief. Sure, there's the matter of not wanting to stand out, or to cause trouble, or to face conflict. But because we're hard-wired to value community, being the only one can often lead us to question our own convictions and perceptions.

In a classic research project, psychologist Solomon Asch had college students do a simple exercise. They were shown a series of diagrams, and asked over and over again, "Which line in the picture is longest?" Most of the people in the room were part of the research team, and following instructions about how to respond. After the first few diagrams, these people started saying, with no hesitation at all, that one of the shorter lines was the longest.

The poor students who were the actual research subjects heard the other members of the group announce an obviously wrong answer to a simple question. When faced with this confident consensus among other members of the group, about 75% of the students altered their answers at least once.

It is hard to be the only one. Even when the facts seem clear, we start to question our perceptions and thinking when nobody else thinks the same way.

If you hear an offensive joke, your gut reaction tells you that it is inappropriate. But if everybody else in the room laughs, or shows no distress, don't you stop to question you reaction and your values? Maybe it wasn't so bad after all.

If a few other folk squirmed or cleared their throats, your reality would be confirmed, and it would be so much easier to say, "You know, I find that sort of statement offensive."

Indeed, when shock-radio host Don Imus made his outlandish quip about African American members of a women's basketball team, there was a quick and angry reaction. But the public outcry grew as the story continued in the news. The situation became more "real", more significant, as more people spoke out. People who were just shocked at first came to see the statement as genuinely offensive when they heard others speaking up.

The role of community references is a factor that has been confirmed in marketing studies. Most people don't make their decisions about what to buy based entirely on rational, factual information. Most people -- and probably all of us at times -- give great weight in our decisions to what our friends and neighbors are doing. We don't necessarily want the best product. We decide if a product is adequate for our needs by noticing if our peers consider it "reputable."

There's that leading edge of "early adopters" who try out new technologies and new ideas. Those folk usually are looking for "the best", even if it is unusual. Part of the valuable role that those leading edge people play is to get enough of the new things into use so that the rest of us won't look odd or foolish when we get one.

It was hard for lots of folk to be the only one in their neighborhood using compact florescent light bulbs. The "what's that?" question from friends, and the need to explain an unexpected purchase, was a difficult hurdle. But when the bulbs started to become "normal", then people didn't feel like freaks when they put them in their porch lights.

We don't like to be alone. We decide what to do based on what our friends and neighbors are doing. Knowing that we're not alone can be an important motivator.

I heard about a Unitarian church in Oregon that had an ambitions plan to get members enrolled for wind power. They set a goal of 42 families signing up, within a six week period. The committee did all of the right things -- educational inserts in bulletins and newsletters, sign-up forms easily available, lots of facts about the benefits of alternative energy, and frequent reminders about the project. All the facts were well known.

At the end of the campaign, they had 35 families who had made the wind power commitment -- a good result, but not up to the goal. On the following Sunday, they put a good spin on the news, and celebrated the 35 households who had made the change.

In the next week, another 10 households enrolled for wind power. They'd heard all the facts and the benefits. But what was finally persuasive was that lots of people they knew and trusted were willing to do it. They didn't want to be the only ones.

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Tomorrow, there will be Step It Up rallies across the country calling for strong action on climate change by the US Congress. In over 1,300 places, folk will gather together to give voice to their beliefs about the need for action.

The Step It Up organizers have been surprised and delighted about this amazing response. People across the country have jumped at the chance to plan an event or to participate. This national day of action has provided a setting where people can see that they are not alone, and that they are not crazy for believing as they do.

People are eager to come to these rallies, and to know that they are part of a community of ordinary folk with similar values and convictions. After attending one of these rallies, it will be much easier for people to speak up, because they know that they're not alone.

Instead of saying, "I've been doing a lot of reading, and I think it is time for the US to change its policies", it will be possible to say, "I was just at that rally with hundreds of other people, and we all say that the US needs to cut carbon 80% by 2050!"

It is much easier to speak up when you're not alone. It is easier to believe and give voice to your message when you know that you're part of a group.

And it is much easier for members of the broader community to believe and respond when there's a broad movement with a clear message. When word goes out in this weekend's news about "the largest day of environmental action since the first Earth Day," then it becomes clear that this isn't a fringe movement. The hundreds of thousands of people speaking out make the cause credible and reliable for those who just weren't sure.

It is hard to be alone. That's why tomorrow's rallies are so important. Thousands of individuals who have felt very isolated will be empowered by joining in a group action. And millions of mainstream folk will witness the sort of large-scale community reference that can change minds and behavior.

So I urge you -- be part of this movement. Do it for your own benefit, and for the good of the cause. Find an event near you (look it up at www.StepItUp2007.org), and make every effort to be there. Then, starting on Saturday evening, visit the Step It Up website again, to see pictures of all those thousands and thousands of ordinary people who are joining together in a common cause. Be a witness to this big and growing movement.

Speak out! Step It Up! Because we're not alone.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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