Escape the Echo Chamber
By Cathye Williams | Feb. 6, 2021
Trying to cut down on some clutter, I found myself leafing through years worth of back issues of a local magazine, one always full of stories and images that highlight the best our region has to offer. Instead of eliminating piles, however, I found myself staring out my frosty window and daydreaming about my bare toes buried in the warm sand.
Unfortunately, one particular photo, a stunning aerial shot of Torch Lake, in Antrim County, brought me back to reality. It got me thinking about less flattering photos I've seen of that lake in this year’s news, showing how Torch Lake’s normally turquoise waters and sugar-sands were turning a greenish murky brown from algae mats populating the lake’s bottom. Thinking I had found the subject for my next column, I made some calls and prepared to dive into the muck. But as I read and took notes, I began questioning if this is what I really wanted to talk about..
Every couple of months, I have the privilege to share my opinion on these pages. My focus is environmental issues. Not an expert by any means, I research and try to distill my thoughts into something useful on a topic of concern. I aim to get the facts right, stay hopeful, give an honest viewpoint, and not scare the reader.
That last one is a bit tough these days. Everything seems scary, and distractions abound. Science and truth hold little sway for many citizens, which is problematic in light of the challenges we face. As I was thinking of delving into blue lakes and brown goo, my mind wandered. What about fracking, pipelines, climate change, lake levels, erosion, PFAS, lead poisoning, air pollution, plastic pollution, unhealthy food systems, and habitat loss? What about the economic and social justice we need in order for the solutions to health and environmental problems to work? These are daunting, complex, and interrelated problems that need big solutions.
So instead of talking about the goo, I decided instead to talk about the who. Knowledge only takes us so far. We have the knowledge and technology already to solve many of our environmental woes, and more innovation is not far behind. At some point, we need somebody to do something.
Many of us are doing something. The steps we take as individuals to lessen our harm to the environment are important and should be encouraged and continued. They make life better for our families and communities and model good practices that others can follow. However, the big changes we need to clean up and protect our water and air, restore and protect delicate ecosystems, and stabilize the climate require laws, policies, and accountability. For this we need leaders at every level, local, state, and federal, working for change.
Public officials will only know what you want if you tell them. They can’t read your mind, and they aren’t following you, no matter how clever your TikTok video or well-crafted your Facebook post. No judgment here. I’m as guilty as anyone. Social media scratches an itch that is hard to ignore. And while it does have value for sharing useful ideas and events with people you might otherwise never have reached, it has very little usefulness for communicating meaningfully with your government. Shocking, after the last four years, I know.
What is useful? Respectful engagement. Call them, email them, show up to their community forums or public events. Attend peaceful protests/calls to action, and sign petitions you trust. Write letters to the editor of your local paper and mention those who represent you by name. Tell them what matters to you and why. Arm yourself with some numbers — like the fact that air pollution costs the United States 5 percent of its annual GDP (mostly due to early deaths caused by particulate matter). Or the fact that renewable energy production creates 4–5 times more jobs than coal or gas.
Finally, tell them what you want them to do. If you’re not sure but want to get specific, most environmental groups advocate for specific policies and legislation at all levels. Earthshare.org is a good place to start. A little exploring might lead you to a proposal that speaks to your concerns.
No time, you say? Perhaps you might join me in keeping track of the time spent engaging with social media or other online content for a few days. If you’re anything like me, you’ll likely discover time available for something that is more effective. Not online much? Try using some of the time you spend worrying about environmental problems and take one small action as an antidote to that worry.
Perhaps you’ve lost faith in your efficacy. Or you’ve grown cynical about our leaders and their willingness to listen, especially if you’re on a different end of the political spectrum. Regrettably, you might be right; they may not hear you. But it's certain they won’t if you’re not speaking.
To find names and contact information for local, state, and federal elected officials and government agencies go to usa.gov.
Cathye Williams serves as a volunteer and media liaison for the Grand Traverse area chapter of the Citizens Climate Lobby, www.citizensclimatelobby.com. She writes from Benzie County.