Making people realize the planet is not flat


April 22, 1991|By LESTER A. PICKER

For the 26th anniversary of Earth Day, I thought I'd do something bold and daring. I'm publicly announcing my Environmental Theorem No. 1. For those not into stuffy science or fuzzy-warm ecology, I'll state it simply: Unless acted upon by considerable outside force (i.e., a smack upside the head), most people actually believe the Earth is flat.

There, I said it. In public, in print.

You see, most of us have never been on a space shuttle. So, while we may know intellectually that the Earth is round, our daily lives tend to reinforce the notion that it is actually flatter than the proverbial pancake. After all, our pencils don't usually roll off the table and, except for an occasional hill, we drive mostly over flat terrain.

It's easy for us to make believe that out of sight is not only out of mind, it is out of existence. Like the ancient Greeks, we can almost believe that things we discard fall off the edges of the Earth. When we flush our toilets or dump toxic wastes, we never think of the downstream consequences.

Now here's Theorem No. 2: There are considerable outside forces waiting to come upside the head. Many non-profit organizations have environmental messages we all need to hear, to understand and to act on.

We've got to educate ourselves to act as if we believe the Earth is round, with all that implies. Fish do not adhere to national boundaries, the fragile ozone layer protects us all from the dangers of ultraviolet radiation, and radioactive clouds travel far from their point of origin, as Chernobyl demonstrated. Quality, hands-on environmental education should be required in our schools in much the same way we insist on math and science. And, quality environmental education teaches about global ecosystems. What we do here affects living things "over there."

Fortunately, as we look back on the past 25 years, there has been remarkable progress toward recognizing our environmental stewardship role.

Non-profit environmental organizations have done remarkably well in increasing our environmental awareness, despite numerous obstacles, including governmental indifference. As we move into the next quarter century of environmental awakening, leaders of environmental organizations are formulating ways to respond to the challenges which lay ahead, as they seek to move the environmental agenda to the forefront of public policy.

"After all the media attention focused on Earth Day last year, I think we really started to alter our collective behavior toward the environment," says John Sawhill, president of the highly regarded Nature Conservancy. "The challenge for us is to reinforce that behavioral change. We need to develop localized, grass-roots efforts to keep citizen and corporate responsibility for the environment in the public eye without complete dependence on the news media."

Another critical challenge facing environmental organizations is how to deal with the explosive growth many have recently experienced. In his four years as executive director, Michael Fischer has seen the Sierra Club double to nearly 650,000 members.

One of the most troubling issues in the environmental movement is the relative absence of ethnic diversity. "As a group, our organization is pretty homogeneous," Fischer reports. "Forty-five percent of our members have graduate degrees and their average income is in excess of $75,000. People of color represent less than 5 percent of our membership."

As Fischer rattled off statistics showing how people of color are exposed to greater risks of hazardous wastes, he reflected the environmental movement's desire to reach out to people of color. "We've got to find ways to be of credible service to minority communities and to people of color. We're in a good position to do this. We need to bring these communities in as coalition members and eventually have people of color join the movement as individuals. When you've had to be concerned with issues of social justice, it's hard to make environmental concerns a priority."

Environmental non-profits have their work cut out for them. Unless we all work together to make environmental concerns a priority, we're doomed to live with the consequences of a flat Earth mind-set.

Les Picker, a consultant in the field of philanthropy, works with charitable organizations and for-profit companies.

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