THE GLOBAL CITIZEN: How's a Green Group to Survive Without Junk Mail?

It's so hard to do right in a world that expects you, rewards you, encourages you to do wrong.

As when the Sierra Club, fighting off a Disney mountain development, discovered that it owned shares in Disney.

As when environmentalists jet to global climate change conferences, emitting greenhouse gases all the way.

As when green groups send out mass mailings pleading for the preservation of forests -- mailings printed on proper postconsumer recycled paper, which is, nevertheless, made from ground-up trees, cut from a forest, about to proceed with 20 percent probability to a recycling center, 80 percent to a landfill. One out of a hundred of these appeals will actually generate a response.

The green groups do it because even a one percent response keeps them in business. Because they don't know how else to bring the urgent matter of the shrinking forests to our overwhelmed attention. Because it's cheap and easy. Because everybody does it.

Consider the plight of the Center for a New American Dream (of which I am a board member). This worthy organization has taken on no less a task than "helping people consume responsibly to improve our quality of life and protect the environment." It does so without preaching, indeed with an irreverent lightness. "More fun, less stuff" is its motto. The Center gently points out that the relentless effort to channel ever more material through our lives not only devastates the environment, it also clutters our space, makes our days hopelessly hectic, and diverts us from many sources of true (and nonmaterial) satisfaction.

Members are the lifeblood of any organization, especially one that works for voluntary cultural change. So the Center for a New American Dream is on a membership drive. It has been offered a challenge grant: $250,000 to further the work of the organization, if the number of members goes up by 1500 before next November.

In this world there are experts who will tell you how to enroll 1500 people in anything. First you buy a mailing list of 150,000 names and addresses. You get it from organizations to which do-good folks of the sort who might be interested in a New American Dream subscribe. Then you send out 150 thousand pieces of mail. It's easy. The system is all set up. Everyone does it.

It will take 150,000 appeals to bring back 1500 memberships, the experts say. That means 148,500 will be thrown out. Made from trees, printed with inks by fuel-consuming machines, collated, labeled, sorted by other machines, loaded into pollution-spewing trucks, delivered to mailboxes, loaded into other vehicles headed for (20 percent) recycling stations or (80 percent) landfills.

Just the kind of unasked-for, intrusive, life-cluttering, earth-destroying, mindless, soul-eroding, easy, cheap, everybody-does-it consumption that the Center for a New American Dream is asking us to reconsider.

The Center's staff is well aware of the contradiction. Certain pesky board members have pointed it out as well. But it's hard to turn away from relative certainty into the unknown. "How else can we get 1500 new members by November? There's $250,000 riding on it!" With a great gulp, the Center decided to risk the challenge grant, rather than blow off its principles.

It's enough to make a board member both proud and nervous. People tell me that a national organization cannot survive without regular mass mailings. If one can, it will have to rely on the delightful alternative to the undelightful mass marketing that generates our daily flood of junk mail. The opposite of distant, impersonal manipulation is genuine human friendship.

If each existing Center member brought in two friends, that would get the organization to its goal long before November. Sounds simple. But hardly any organization grows that way, and I'm discovering why. I have pledged to bring in ten friends myself. I'm halfway there, but I'm finding it hard going, for a disturbing reason.

It is not OK in this culture to talk to friends about causes you believe in, much less to ask them to join in. It's OK to blast perfect strangers with crass messages every hour of the day, but it's a tinge embarrassing, it brings up some shyness, it seems an intrusion, it risks rejection to share real heartfelt commitments. It's easier to share our cynicism with strangers than our dreams with friends.

The very purpose of the Center for a New American Dream seems to require changing that sad fact. I'd love to see the Center -- and other good organizations -- build up a strong membership while neither buying nor selling mailing lists, while refusing to invade people's lives with unsolicited appeals, while maintaining such deep respect for trees that it will not waste them. I'd like to see a movement for sane consumption swell up sanely, through webs of friendship among people willing to speak about and act on their real values.

I wonder if it's possible. Before November.

The web address of the Center for a New American Dream is www.newdream.org. The phone number is 877-68-DREAM.

Donella Meadows is an adjunct professor at Dartmouth College and director of the Sustainability Institute in Hartland, Vermont.

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