The one emotion that makes all the difference.

Over the last few years, or even decade depending on who’s doing the tallying, there has been bad news in every sector of the environment.

As a reader, I love when people call out the good news. How we’re fighting single-use-plastics or committing to businesses who are fighting climate change within their industries, or any number of good stories.

But, if you’re the communication manager for your environmental organization or green business, and you haven’t been telling your supporters that the sky is falling… then you’re missing out.

Why in the world would I support such fear-mongering? Usually, it’s not my style. But at this moment, it can work. Here’s why.

The power of deeper emotions

There is a lesser-harnessed trick you probably aren’t using that could propel your donations in this new era.

That is the incredible empathy environmental supporters are feeling.

Quick vocab lesson.

Sympathy and empathy are often used interchangeably (like jealous and envious, but that’s another lesson for another day).

But they’re very different.

Sympathy is the ability for us to feel for someone. A friend’s parent gets diagnosed with cancer, and our heart breaks for them.

Empathy is our ability to feel with someone. A friend’s parent gets diagnosed with cancer, and since you’ve also lived through that nightmare, you know in the bottom of your heart exactly how they’re feeling.

Empathy, by the way, is something humans are born with.

A recent study concluded that day-old babies are more distressed over the cries of other babies than they are over their own cries.

Proving that at our basest, we can be more unhappy by someone else’s unhappiness than we can be over our own selfish problems.

While this might be the kind of study to fly under the radar, it shows the enormous capacity we can have about things that have nothing to do with us.

How do babies crying, exactly, relate to your environmental work?


If you communicate your cause right, invoking empathy in your supporters is powerful.

Take Standing Rock, for example. Remember that story?

Not many of us have been to North Dakota, and most of us don’t really even know what it’s like to have the threat of a pipeline in our very backyards. And to take it a step farther, in our country today, there aren’t even many of us who can relate to being so deeply and spiritually connected to that backyard.


Standing Rock was one of the greatest environmental stories of 2016.

While hosting SNL in the middle of the crisis, Kristin Wiig gave a shout out to “Stand with Standing Rock” while pointing at her t-shirt with the same plea.

Thousands upon thousands of people took up this cause as their own. Even though they aren’t members of the Standing Rock Sioux nation, related to anyone who could have actually been affected by the Dakota Access Pipeline, or experienced any kind of environmental threat themselves.

Why? Why were so many people willing to fight for this cause?

Because we are empathetic.

It’s likely there’s a long list of other reasons Standing Rock roused so many followers, but our ability to empathize with the Sioux nation  and the communities affected was so big, we fought back.

Don’t lose this powerful emotion.

Regrettably, although each of us come into this world with the capacity for empathy, we can lose it over time.

Many factors in society today can chip away at those empathetic instincts. Social media, the corporate ladder, over-stressed and overworked parents…I could go on.

Those of your supporters who are in tune with their empathetic instincts can mine that to create even more passion for the causes they care about.

We can, with practice, emotionally place ourselves within an environmentally treacherous landscape and feel what that would be like.

So, how can you harness environmental empathy for your cause?

  1. Immerse your supporters in a story. Telling a story triggers the empathetic sides of our brains, allowing us to be IN the story itself and not just experiencing it from the outside.
  2. If your cause isn’t easy to explain in a story from a person, get a student to film a documentary on your place or subject. There’s a reason we love going to the movies. We can easier place ourselves in an environment or emotion through a camera lens.
  3. Pictures. Powerful images are like little short stories of their own. And any green cause is ripe for a good picture.
  4. Re-tell testimonials from the people involved. Another take on the story idea, yet told through the eyes of the people directly impacted by your work.
  5. Show how a lack of involvement will personally involve your reader. What would happen if the Standing Rock pipeline had been approved? How would that really affect a supporter in Maine or Hawaii?

And at the end? Give them a reason, and an outlet, to get involved.

Call to actions following an empathetic trigger can mean only one thing: more support for your cause.

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