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If you see something (environmentally-related), can you say something?

2010 February 2

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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13 Responses leave one →
  1. Jackenson Durand permalink
    February 2, 2010

    I had never been like the way my native Country green nature aspect had been treating by people.
    In the past my native Country nature had been very attractive but since more than twenty years ago, we had been observing a considerable degradation of this so beautiful mountain nature. Today, we are crying a lot.

  2. armansyahardanis permalink
    February 2, 2010

    Human being here it’s not adaptive in the tropical forest, especially in Sumatra and Kalimantan island. Ya, illegal logging. The first time, I am angry to “cukong” who donated to local citizen. The second time, I am so sad, because the leader of Districs, Provinces and Jakarta are support to cukong. Irony….. Local citizen need the money for survive of their life, but for leaders to use buy the house and Pilgrim hajj….!

  3. Al Bannet permalink
    February 2, 2010

    Many alcoholics must arrive at death’s door before they realize they’re in trouble, and quite often by that time it’s too late. Apparently, this is also true of the billions of people addicted to the buying power of money. They are so driven by their instincts, that not until the biosphere is actually in the processes of collapse, will they realize they are in danger — and then it will probably be too late to recycle 100% of all their waste and garbage and plan the size of their families according to the Earth’s ability to support them. This must be true, because even our progressive-minded President insists that his main purpose is to “get this economy back on track and growing again”, as though the Earth can accomodate a relentlessly growing population and its relentlessly expanding economy. That appears to be an instinct that very few can see beyond. A further example is the fact that my warnings have been ignored for the many years that I have been posting on forums like this. I suppose I will continue for the love in life and beauty, but it certainly appears to be a futile effort.

  4. yon say permalink
    February 2, 2010

    as we all know our world become to END b/c of this environmental changes .we have to work on it .when I think about it ,it is real END for human and life on this world.

  5. Frank Schulte-Ladbeck permalink
    February 2, 2010

    In my job, I come into contact with people who are concerned with green causes when they think it will save them money. Since I am placed in a position as an educator at times, I use that as an opportunity to go beyond what is expected to explain the damage they can cause by their actions, like pouring oil or food into a disposer. Possibly the best way to implement such a campaign might be ways to find out how something will directly effect them. For example, oil/food down the disposer is bad for the environment, but it is bad for your home because it can clog pipes, and you will have to either rent the proper equipment or hire a plumber to have it cleared- personal financial loss.

  6. Michael E. Bailey permalink
    February 2, 2010

    One of the key stumbling blocks we have to retaining a healthy environment is superstition and religious dogma supported by a few but powerful people and believed by many here and overseas. This goes against the whole idea of birth control, family planning, and a woman’s ability to choose, all of which we need to get some control over population growth. But there will be initiatives on the statewide ballot this June and November to try to greatly reduce or eliminate family planning and choice which gets into the nexus of religious dogma, conservative politics, and almost unlimited amounts of money for campaigns. Then big national and multinational corporations seem, many times, to be more concerned with maximizing corporate profits than with environmental impacts. Ad campaigns to the public don’t promote environmental responsibilitybut instead all kinds of products that it is said everyone must have or that everyone needs. And this turns people out in a buying frenzy. These things need to change before we can get to the importance of environmental awareness. Best wishes, Michael E. Bailey.

  7. modif motor permalink
    February 3, 2010

    I am very concerned about the current state of the environment.

  8. David Mc permalink
    February 4, 2010

    My “God is Green” bible study group has been discussing some of your very points for the last few weeks. I don’t see us tripping anyone up.

  9. billy permalink
    February 5, 2010

    If this is a environmentally friendly building, why do they leave a majority of their office lights on @ night weekday’s and throughout the weekend – as their office lights & building shine @ night like a ‘christmas tree’. Not very enviornmentally responsible + additional costs to the taxpayers !

  10. Chris Gustafson permalink
    February 10, 2010

    My “water” grievances include:

    Rainfall Values have not been updated since Hershfield’s TP-40 as used in the TR-55 “Urban Hydrology for Small Watersheds, 2nd Ed.Stormwater Runoff Models whether in paper-version or Computer Models should also have to include the micro-regional data from the “Summer Cloud Buster” storm event study (annually here in SE-WI, the third week in June) more often than not exceed the 100 yr. & 500 yr. rainfall amounts as reported by Stan Changnon of the University of IL in
    Champaign/Urbana and the Midwest Climate Center.

    Now that my town has to reduce Total Suspended Solids (TSS) loading 40% by 2013, all large-scale development should have to sell “green lots” instead of gettign away with selling “brown lots”…and stop letting developers dedicate stormwater ponds unto the land of unsuspecting and unknowledgable potential property owners, like they’re going to understand how to properly maintain the design storage volume or cut corners to save $$$ when they findout they are left with mud on their face.

    Lastly, stormwater facilities out to have to be designed to handle a 6.93in/24 hr storm event when housing development goes in at the top of a watershed on silty/clay loam soil. Especially, when we experience so much rain on frozen ground and rain on saturated ground events here!

    Lastly, we are experiencing “Climate Change” not just Global Warming! Studies conducted during the no-fly period right after 911 and flash-pan evaporation studies show we have 17 days more cloud cover on average now, more below normal summer night temperatures lows that negatively impact food crops by creating environ for molds, smuts, mildew, ect., and even more northly migration of the lowly armidillo critter. Tired a reading good studies that as a matter of public policy not published in any of the collegiate books, means any good scientifically peer-reviewed reporoducable studies will be discredited by EPA unless it also includes a feasible socioeconomic solution to the problem!
    Thanks for letting me vent my frustration.

  11. free radio commercial - radio advertising permalink
    June 19, 2010

    Environmental conservation is the responsibility of every single human on this planet. It’s time for us all to wake up and realize that the protection and preservation of our beloved Earth must be dealt with on a personal basis. We cannot continue to wait for irresponsible and unconcerned governmental agencies to save our planet; they are the main reason it is in its current state. We cannot continue to hope that major (and minor) corporations will voluntarily become proactive in their stances to conserve resources and minimize pollution; they never will. We cannot continue to idly sit by and watch our fellow humans act irresponsibly towards our home; they will wipe us out with their continued ignorance and careless actions.

  12. Christmas Recipes permalink
    October 15, 2010

    What a great campaign. Our society seems so afraid to just say something. You hear some tragic stories that could have been avoided if people would just say something.

    When I see people throwing cigarette butts on the ground, I always make sure to say something about picking it up. Every little bit helps!

  13. donald permalink
    January 30, 2011

    Thanks for this very informative article. Keep it up!

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