The intimacy of small issues

<p>I'm an avid fly fisher, and often head to the Deschutes River in Central Oregon to fish for trout and steelhead. Earlier this year, I noticed a sign newly installed at an access point warning anglers about <a href="http://www.protectyourwaters.net/hitchhikers/mollusks_new_zealand_mudsna... New Zealand mud snail</a>, a highly invasive species. The NZMS is notorious for how fast it reproduces. The individuals are just a few millimeters in size, but with no natural predators can quickly carpet the riverbed, choking out native aquatic life.</p>
<p>The sign described the threat the snail poses, had a few identifying photos and included instructions to help guard against carrying snails or their eggs to new waters. The snail is highly resilient, and can even live out of water for days-allowing it to hitch a ride on wading boots, especially on the felt soles that help anglers keep their footing on slippery rocks.</p>
<p>I bring this up because invasive species is the sort of issue that's easily eclipsed by larger, seemingly more pressing environmental issues such as climate change. But it's also the sort of issue that has a stronger claim on my attention because has the potential to have a more immediate and direct impact on my quality of life.</p>
<p>That's to say, just over the past few months I can see evidence of the growing population of NZMS in a river I love and envision how it will affect my fishing and recreation. I can comprehend it on a personal, human scale that's more elusive when it comes to climate change. The invasive species is a palpable local threat, whereas climate change-for all of the stark imagery and dire news reports-still feels at times like an abstraction, removed from day-to-day experience. While climate change has the potential to disrupt every aspect of my life (and the lives of my children) at some point in the future, that somehow makes it less intimate rather than more.</p>
<p></p>
<p>Not to mention, climate change is already receiving its share of coverage these days, thanks to Al Gore and other high profile activists. They helped to dramatically raise awareness of the crisis, and the ongoing campaign is sophisticated and global.</p>
<p>Maybe why that's I'm more motivated to take action and educate others about the NZMS problem. It helps that I share an interest in NZMS with a local community of anglers. We have the same agenda and are more easily networked and mobilized. There's strength in numbers. Plus, the actions I can take as an individual to prevent spreading the infestation are easily described (freezing my boots for a few hours or treating them with a solution of 409 cleaner, for example) and relatively easy to follow. In other words, I already belong to a well-defined tribe that has a stake in the outcome and I feel like my actions can make a meaningful difference.</p>
<p>All of this just served for me as another reminder of the power of scaling environmental issues to the individual. While we may want to feel connected to a larger purpose or organization, we're often more engaged and motivated when we can immediately grasp how we are personally affected and what we can do.</p>
<p>From a communications standpoint, that could mean relying on language and imagery that draws on personal experience and local observations, using community's familiar vernacular. It might include focusing on more intimate and decentralized channels of communication, particularly peer-to-peer, and framing the issue in terms of existing areas of interest or concern.</p>
<p>My point is, each of us has a finite capacity for adopting environmental problems as our own. We can't take an active and meaningful interest in every issue. I think it's likely many of us already feel overloaded, and are applying tighter and tighter filters to screen out new issues from competing for our attention and energies. The issues that do get through-such as invasive species-are the ones that will catch us at unguarded moments, when we're engaged in our favorite activities or connected with our peer groups, feel more immediate and intimate, and are expressed in ways that are already familiar to us.</p>
<p><em>Christian works for AHA!, a communications firm with expertise in writing located in Vancouver, Wash., just across the Columbia River from Portland. Visit<a href="http://shinygreenbutton.typepad.com/shiny_green_button/2008/07/space-inv... Shiny Green Button</a>, AHA!'s blog on communications, brands and sustainability. </em></p>
<p>&nbsp;</p>