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Want to Save The Planet? Change Your Green Communication Strategy

04/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Recently I visited the Dojang of national taekwando champion and 2012 Olympic-hopeful James Moontasri. I was there with our television crew to determine whether I could realistically integrate an environmentally responsible ethic into James' highly disciplined and explosive training routine (I had the pleasure of participating in one session in which he roundhouse-kicked me literally across the room).

What I really wanted to discover was whether I could make James a fiercer, more successful competitor by virtue of making him a greener competitor. After all, top-level athletes often generate unusually large environmental footprints. For example, the intensity of James' training regimen requires him to consume up to three times as much food as the average person. As he recovers between his three daily workout sessions, he's constantly wolfing down protein bars and shakes along with pizzas and burgers.

My job as host of The Lazy Environmentalist is to convince everyday people and professionals to adopt green practices. However, I know from experience - be it on my TV show, former radio show, or through my green retail company - that asking people to go green solely for the sake of the environment is often futile. Moral appeals and guilt-trips don't work nor do graphs and charts of rising temperatures. Even images of stranded polar bears languishing on floating ice blocks rarely result in change that lasts more than a day or two. Instead, I've learned that that the key to getting people to wholeheartedly embrace environmental action is to frame green solutions in such a way that people perceive them as overwhelmingly in their own self-interest.

In the case of James, I took him to meet Dr. Clyde Wilson, a medical and sports nutrition professor at Stanford University. Dr. Clyde pointed out to our champion that he would be wise to eat organic food. Now, of course, every environmentalist believes it's wise to eat organic food. But Dr. Clyde had a different take on why it's so essential for high-performance athletes like James. Because organic foods can't rely on pesticides and insecticides to ward off invaders and must instead fend for themselves in order to survive, they are by their very nature stronger than conventionally grown foods. In simplest terms, when you eat stronger foods you get stronger and can recover quicker from intense physical activity.

And that's why James found Dr. Clyde's logic so powerful and compelling. He discovered that eating organic could potentially serve his self-interest by improving his chances to become world champion and win Olympic Gold in 2012. Whether it was better for the planet was irrelevant to James. He liked the idea of taking environmental action because he understood that doing so would be better for him.

Of course, on our show we don't just do green "show and tell." James agreed to go organic for two weeks and then I came back to gauge how he would fare in a sparring match against a longtime rival. I won't give away exactly how it all turned out. The results will air this April when Season 2 of The Lazy Environmentalist premieres on Sundance Channel, but suffice to say that on the whole the environment was a big winner that day.

Communication lessons like these are really important for the environmental community. People don't have to care about the environment for the same reasons that environmentalists do. It's time for those of us within the movement to decide whether we want to continue to be right, or perhaps more accurately self-righteous, about our causes or whether we want to be effective in attracting millions more people to them. The key is always in how you frame the issue. What the movement faces today is a massive communication challenge, not a solution challenge. We don't need new technologies nor do we need to revert our lifestyles back to some quaint bygone era. We just have to learn how to communicate about green choices more effectively so that those who don't identify as environmentalists will want them too.