Like a will-o’-the-wisp, Earth Day captures media attention periodically before fading into the background again.

Media focus on environmental issues is somewhat like a will-'o-the-wisp.
Media focus on environmental issues is somewhat like a will-o’-the-wisp. (Source: Kikasz via Compfight cc)

Why does this happen? Thomas Hayden has some ideas about why media focus on environmental topics waxes and wanes. He mapped out the coverage of environmental topics in The New York Times and found a gradual upward trend over the decades, punctuated by wild fluctuations.

These fluctuations – the jagged peaks on his graph – happen to coincide with our collective moments of excitement about environmentalism, which I have renamed:

  • “hippies and whales”
  • “tropical rainforests”
  • “temperate rainforests”
  • “climate change science”
  • “climate change movie”
  • “climate change reality” 

Although journalists’ interest in environmental issues may be growing over time, it is based on short-term events and catastrophes.

Do other people forget about environmentalism as often as journalists do? It’s hard to say. But an article on fads and the environment suggests social trends need to build on deeper underlying values in society to succeed.

This is an important point. If you want to build a successful environmental trend or meme, you need to speak to what already matters to people – their existing cultures and priorities.

Should environmentalists try to catch people’s attention with a series of trends and hot topics? Maybe that is not enough.

Like dieting, environmental change has to be more than a fad to succeed. If environmentalists want to achieve long-term, successful social change, that will require making structural changes to our everyday lifestyles so positive choices will lead to rewards. These rewards do not all have to be financial; they can be social. They can even involve saving time or simplifying our lives. 

Maybe environmentalists need to augment those will-o’-the-wisps of media coverage with solid structural changes behind the scenes.

Since it’s Earth Day, that gives me an opportunity to talk about eco-friendly electronics.

Environmentally speaking, bloggers and other electronics enthusiasts aren’t innocent. We use and discard electronics while consuming energy from coal-fired power plants. Our computers and cell phones also contribute to air and water pollution during their mining, manufacturing and disposal.

For a simple overview of how this cycle happens, check out The Story of Electronics:

As the video explains, companies design our electronics for a relatively short life cycle – less than two years. After that, recycling companies dispose of the electronics unsafely overseas. The workers who produce the electronics suffer from miscarriages and cancer.

What’s a responsible electronics enthusiast to do? The good news is that you have many opportunities to break the cycle.

Buy Refurbished or Eco-Friendly Electronics

Eco-friendly cell phones are starting to show up on the market. This is important because some of the materials inside cell phones come from nations that have few protections for mine workers. CNet has reviewed some of the eco-friendly phones.

The Green Electronics Council has created a certification called EPEAT for eco-friendly computers. EPEAT-certified computers are manufactured with more recycled components and fewer toxic chemicals than other computers, leading to less hazardous waste.

Repair Your Electronics

Although it may be convenient to buy a shiny new computer when your old one has lost its charm, resist the urge to shop. Fix your computer instead.

You may not be able to impress your friends with new gadgets if you fix your electronics instead of throwing them away, but you’ll be preventing pollution-related health problems in China, India and/or Africa. So you can give yourself a gold star for that. Maybe someday your friends will consider your computer hip and vintage, like an old record player.

Plug into Renewable Energy

If your utility company offers a renewable energy option, buy into it. The cost difference is often minimal. If you want to impress your roommates or family, buy your own solar panel. Energy experts say solar panels are in style.

Save Power

Turn off electronics and power strips when you aren’t using them. Turn down the brightness on your cell phone and computer screens. Uninstall apps which keep your phone using extra energy. Adjust your power-saving control panel settings. Beware of entertaining screen savers – the odds are that they aren’t helping you save energy.

Donate Unwanted Electronics

If your old computers and cell phones are gathering dust, donate them instead of recycling them. You should clean your hard drive before donating your computer.

Domestic violence shelters reuse cell phones after removing identifying information. When people in these shelters have cell phones, they can call for help in emergencies. National Coalition Against Domestic Violence accepts phone donations.

Nonprofits often accept donated computers. Check out their wish lists during the holiday season. World Computer Exchange will send your computer to a community organization in a developing nation.

What choices have you made to reduce the environmental impact of using electronics?