What health activists can learn from environmentalists
Filed under: public health, social change | Tags: activism, behavior change, collective action, emotion, environment, environmentalism, Global Health, going green, health, health care, individuals, innovation, rationality, reason, responsibility, small steps, social change, technology, trendiness, trends |
Public health and environmentalism are alike in that both activists for both issues address complex global problems characterized by interdependence and the need to catalyze collective action. That might be where the similarities end. Here are some of the observations that I have as the Silent Spring has exploded into going green.
The value of small individual steps to cause collective action
Back in the dark ages when I took my first psychology class, we studied a number of techniques for persuasion. One that is particularly applicable in getting individuals involved in social change is called the foot in the door technique. You make a small request that is easy for the person to fulfill. Later, you make additional requests that gradually escalate the amount of time and resources required to complete the task.
Going green has found at least 50 ways to get their foot in the door and engage individuals to change their behavior for the health of the planet, most of which cost little or no money and do not take an inordinate amount of time to complete. Activism in health has focused on personal responsibility and personal behavior changes without taking in consideration how simple actions can be harnessed for collective action.
The relationship between emotion and rationality and its effect on change
When you see photos and video of regions affected by climate change, it stirs up feelings of sympathy for the people affected. Visual elements such as graphs easily explain the science behind climate change. Environmental activists can visually convey their messages, simultaneously appealing to emotions that spark action and avoid the quicksand of explaining terminology.
Unfortunately there is no easy way to explain obstetric fistula or other related medical maladies that plague the developing world but are completely preventable. Medical explanations rob issues of the emotional impact necessary to prompt action and the visuals are certainly not easy to portray to the general public.
The elusive cool factor
The reason why iPods are the number one music player is not because they are necessarily superior. They have that elusive IT Factor. Climate change has that IT Factor that makes people want to evangelize about their beliefs and actions. Al Gore has made fighting climate change not only social acceptable but socially desirable. People are literally green with envy about others’ ability going green. What has started out to be a counterculture message has all the hallmarks of social climbing combined with hard science developing innovative tools. After all, there is a Digg category dedicated to the news stories that puts the spotlight on the issue.
If you look at the Digg category on health, you’re likely to find more bad news about smoking or how sex really is good for your health. You won’t see the latest popular celebrity supporting a health cause with the exception of supporting HIV prevention for some. While Bono pops up occasionally with sunglasses that seems to be permanently attached to his head, it’s not socially desirable to advocate for access to adequate water and sanitation to prevent diarrhea, one of the causes of mortality in children under 5. Technology and innovation in health are not missing; awareness of developments in the public tends to be low.
Appealing to personal responsibility and pride
An appeal to personal responsibility for the overall state of health of the population has not been explored in public health. There is something to be said about tapping into the sense of common humanity whether through human rights or a different paradigm. Personal responsibility for taking care of the earth is a religious duty described in the Bible. Caretaking for the environment is also a form of patriotism in encouraging protection of your country’s natural resources. Fostering this same sort of personal connection to not only one’s personal state of health but the need to improve and maintain the infrastructure that supports the public’s health.
Can health activists take a page from An Inconvenient Truth and make access to good health a popular social movement?