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If You See Something (Environmentally-Related), Can You Say Something?

2010 January 11

By now you’ve probably heard the catchy tagline for transit security “If you see something, say something.” This social marketing campaign engages users of the transit system to bolster security efforts, which might otherwise seem out of their hands, by appealing to people’s desire to help and ability to see. The desired action is quite simple: if you see a bag unattended, or anything else that looks unusual, ask the person nearest if the bag is theirs and/or report it to an official or worker at the station. Anyone can do it, and it makes common sense, but it requires us to approach a stranger unsolicited and speak to them.

This weekend, I saw people releasing bunches of helium balloons from the second story windows of a club, just after I had gotten off the Metro and heard “If you see something, say something.” So, without thinking, I ran over to the building and shouted to the people that they shouldn’t be littering and that whales were going to eat the balloons and die (see p. 21). It wasn’t my best developed message or delivery, and I am no whale expert! Overall, I doubt it did much to advance the environmental cause, because a shrill shout turns people off more than it educates, engages or convinces them.

So, I began to wonder if getting the delivery right was the only barrier to a successful “If you see something” campaign for an environmental issue, such as reducing littering or global warming pollution. Like national security, environmental issues often feel too large for people to have an impact. And, it’s pretty easy to spot people littering, and even identifying global warming pollution could be done even if it is a bit more difficult. That said, approaching a stranger who is littering might be different, because it is difficult to avoid explicitly or implicitly reprimanding them. Reducing global warming pollution to an even greater extent delves into peoples’ personal choices and lifestyle, and unlike littering, there are no laws against leaving all the lights, televisions, and other appliances on in your home or driving your large inefficient vehicle around the block twenty times looking for a parking space. (Although there are great voluntary programs run by EPA and Department of Energy to promote the alternative behaviors for which I have provided links.)

Perhaps our society’s experience with smoking can offer lessons on the topic. Over time, it has become more and more unacceptable to smoke in public places, and people feel more and more empowered to ask people not to smoke in their presence. Maybe creating excessive global warming pollution will rise to that level, but we’re a ways from there now.

Do you have ideas for environmental issues that might work with the “If you see something, say something” framework?

About the author: Matthew H. Davis, M.P.H., is a Health Scientist in EPA’s Office of Children’s Health Protection, working there on science and regulatory policy as a Presidential Management Fellow since October 2009. Previously, he worked in the environmental advocacy arena, founding a non-profit organization in Maine and overseeing the work of non-profits in four other states.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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4 Responses leave one →
  1. Al Bannet permalink
    January 15, 2010

    You assume all us citizens are able only to comprehend local environmental situations, and blind to what is happening to the nation and the World. That is why you refuse to discuss the obvious need for 100% recycling of all waste and garbage, and the equally obvious need to peacefully reduce the human population through education and family planning. Anyone with common sense knows that too much of any good thing turns it bad, but EPA staff always assumes the lowest common level of intelligence in the citizens it deals with, which narrows the field of discussion so as not to embarrass EPA’s very limited efforts to save the environment from the ecocidal effects of this out-of-control consumer economy here and around the World.

  2. Michael E. Bailey permalink
    January 18, 2010

    People can have a positive impact on this issue both as individuals and as members of larger organizations. On the local level, the People First Enclusion Project on the Oso Creek Trail has greatly cut the amount of general litter there and nearly eliminated the old practice of throwing cigarette butts along the trail. While as a part of the Wild Rivers organization, advocacy work has helped to bring down a number of dams along several rivers turning them wild once again. And in the process making these rivers free flowing again for fish runs and to support more and varied wild life. Best wishes, Michael E. Bailey.

  3. wade harter permalink
    January 18, 2010

    Relative to “see sometning, say something” I offer the following. I see an administration that is sending our manufacturing offshore about as fast as McDonald’s cooks hamburgers. Just in the textile /apparel industry this has resulted in over 5,000,000 lost jobs. What is so bad is that our manufacturing industries are regulated under wastewater, storm water, hazardous waste, air and other permits which mandate that we protect the environment. This is not so in China, India, Korea, etc. So why are we willing to send the pollution overseas? However, not to single out this administration, the policy goes back to Reagan and has continued under each administration, both Decomocratic and Republican. What I see is the destruction of what made this country great – manufacturing. Do we not realize what is common to all third world countries? Hint, little or no manufacturing. Do we not realize why China now owns most of our debt? Another hint, they started manufacturing.

  4. Sandra Nussbaum permalink
    January 19, 2010

    What about a totally different approach for the “If you see something, say something” campaign as it relates to environmental actions? Why not focus on more public recognition of all the good things people do for the environment? Positive reinforcement can be such a powerful tool, especially when you frame it as an injunctive norm, i.e., what is typically approved of in society.

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