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Treehuggers are not effective environmentalists

In 2007, someone anonymous wrote a letter to UC Berkeley environmentalists who were protesting cutting down trees by sitting in them. Here is an excerpt:

Consider what you are fighting for. How many trees does UC intend to destroy for its construction project? (Answer: 38). Is the coast live oak an endangered or threatened species? (Answer: No). Will the removal of these individual trees have any significant impact on the health of the overall population of the species? (Answer: No). Consider how many collective man-hours your campaign has devoted to saving these trees. Has it occurred to you that your time may be better spent focusing on (for example) the huge swaths of the Amazon that are cut down by loggers and developers every day? Are you choosing to protect 38 trees because you really think it is a significant, meaningful cause? I hope not— because that would be ignorant. It seems much more likely that you choose this battle because it is relatively convenient and riskless. Honestly—why don’t you sac up and take on a real environmental offender?

I found a link to this letter on I Will Teach You to be Rich, a financial blog. (The blogger’s name is Ramit Sethi. You should read his book. It’s awesome.) The things that Ramit talks about, though, are about more than just money management. He writes:

You’ll find a lot of people doing largely meaningless things and justifying it with these 4 terrible words: “It can’t hurt, right?”

But it can. We’re cognitive misers. We only have limited attention and limited willpower. And with limited time, are you focusing on stuff that will make no difference? Or are you saving your limited attention and cognition for areas that will really make a difference?

Being an environmentalist is stressful. From all sides the world is being bombarded with intense environmental crises (oil in the Gulf, Amazon deforestation, the polar ice caps melting, or the Pacific Trash Vortex, just to name a few). More than half of the human population doesn’t care, and most of the people who do care are too overwhelmed to do anything.

The rest of us? We spend time fighting small battles. Like the Berkeley activists who sat in trees. But it’s not just them, this problem plagues the entire environmental community! For example, when I was the president of my college environmental club, we spent most of our time and energy on campus improvements. We rearranged recycling bins on campus, so that they would be in more convenient locations. We encouraged students to turn off their lights more often.

No wonder environmentalists get the nickname “treehuggers.” We seem inept. Most of us are not acting at our full potential. We’re not making the changes that actually matter.

So here is my appeal to all people who call themselves environmentalists, wherever you live. If you are concerned about the planet, don’t be a treehugger. Think about how you can most effectively change the world.