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

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.