Writing for Change on Earth Day (and Every Day) -->

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Writing for Change on Earth Day (and Every Day)

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As a high school student in the early 1990s, I was a typical Birkenstock-wearing, granola-crunching tree hugger. I listened to the Indigo Girls, Pearl Jam, and R.E.M. I followed a vegetarian diet. And I mostly didn’t bother with make-up. At the time I thought I was cool, taking a stand against all that was mainstream, but in hindsight I can see that I was actually trendy in most of my choices: what to wear, what to eat, whom to emulate. One way in which I was not like most of my peers, however, was in my strong sense of activism. I wasn’t much for standing on picket lines or making speeches—I was too much an introvert to be comfortable in those arenas—but I believed strongly in the power of the written word to make things happen.

Writing for Change on Earth Day (and Every Day)When my passion was stirred—as it was the time my hometown decided to build a golf course on a remnant of land I thought should be a nature preserve—I acted in the form of editorials to the local newspaper, which I wrote without much guidance but with plenty of heart, agonizing over every line until I’d said exactly what I wanted to say. And while I didn’t necessarily always achieve my goals—the golf course, for example, won in the end—my letters, amateur though they were, initiated conversations in my community that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. Conversations about sustainable choices. The best use of limited resources. The inherent value of natural spaces.

A lot has changed over the past 20 years (including, incidentally, my choice of footwear), but I still have tremendous faith in the written word as a catalyst for all kinds of change: environmental, political, personal, and social. And I’m not alone. For many organizations committed to change, writing is essential to achieving results. In honor of Earth Day, I want to highlight one such organization: 350.org. Cofounded by author Bill McKibben in 2008, 350.org is a growing global movement committed to solving the climate crisis by “creating an equitable global climate treaty that lowers carbon dioxide below 350 parts per million.” For those of you not familiar with the numbers, 350 parts per million (ppm) is the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that many scientists, including Dr. James Hansen of NASA, consider the safe upper limit for humanity; according to 350.org, we’re currently at 392 ppm, well past the threshold of safety.

Part of 350.org’s strategy of creative activism involves engaging individuals in online campaigns and grassroots organizing efforts that include writing letters and op eds to initiate conversations about climate change in communities around the world. To encourage participation, 350.org provides supporters with templates, sample letters, and tips on writing an effective op ed, among other resources. Tools such as these make it easier and less intimidating to engage on a more active level in environmental and social movements, even for those without experience in writing for a cause. Just as importantly, they take the emphasis off the overwhelming nature of the challenge and focus attention on smaller steps that are both possible and powerful.

For more inspiration and suggestions on writing for change, I recommend Mary Pipher’s (2007) Writing to Change the World and The Freedom Writers’ (1999) The Freedom Writers Diary.

Happy Earth Day, everyone!

Jen Johnson

Dissertation editor Jen Johnson "has a particular interest in helping students craft well-written doctoral research, from the sentence level up."

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