Editor’s Note: Journalist/environmentalist Cynthia Barnett was a recent guest of The Villages Environmental Club.
Drive an hour south of Gainesville and you’ll come to The Villages, the world’s largest retirement community. Sprawling across four Florida counties, the community is irresistible fodder for journalists who like to parachute down to the neat cul-de-sacs, golf greens and Zumba classes here. The Villages lends a regular dateline for national and international stories on how these rolling hills now sprout the fastest-growing metro area in America, or about the lack of crime, or, especially popular, the sexual proclivity of residents, as if it’s novel for retirees to pop Viagra and hook-up.
I also parachute into The Villages every few years, but not to report on the sex or the sprawl. For my work as an environmental journalist, the 110,000 residents here represent a growing audience as well as a demographic I’ve come to think of as the “Caring Middle.” The Caring Middle is made up of large numbers of Americans – in both political parties or neither – who care deeply about the trajectory of our country, their fellow humans and the environment.
I first spoke at the largest retirement community on the planet seven years ago, after a resident named Sue Michalson heard me on NPR talking about my first book, Mirage. Back then, Michalson, a retired interior and floral designer from Westchester County, N.Y., had the emerald-green lawn iconic to The Villages, well-irrigated and fertilized. She did not know about the direct connection between her hose and the aquifer, or her fertilizer and Florida’s freshwater. The essential truth of the Caring Middle is this: Once they know, they care.
Villages residents Steve and Susan Turnipseed have torn out 5,000 square feet of turf grass and and replaced it with more than 100 species of natives to both reduce water use and provide habitat to wildlife. Between the “Florida-Friendly” landscaping, rain barrels and a switch from overhead sprinklers to drip irrigation, the couple’s water use has dropped from 25,000 gallons to 3,000 gallons in three years.
When I made a return visit last week to talk about my book Blue Revolution, Michalson’s yard had become a mosaic of beautiful river rock. She hadn’t irrigated or splashed a drop of fertilizer in years. The environmental club she founded – The Village Greens – had successfully lobbied the community for reclaimed water. The club now offers courses in rainwater catchment and leads residents on tours of sustainable building design.
Environmental reporters are good at preaching to the choir, and I do too much of it: Speaking about my books to organizations that already work on water; writing for my own favorite environmental magazines such as Ensia and Orion; engaging on social media with followers who well grasp the threats of climate change and water scarcity and pollution. But these fragmented channels cut us off from many audiences whose numbers, cultural influence and political clout put them in the best position to help tip the United States toward a more sustainable future.
We know from network theory that most people are “conditional cooperators” – going along with new norms and truths if they see enough of their neighbors going along. So the work of a couple I met last week, Steve and Susan Turnipseed, to rip out 5,000 square feet of turf to restore native vegetation in a community as grass-obsessed as The Villages will do more to save the aquifer in this part of the world than 100 preachy press releases. Talking to neighbors about the impact of fossil fuels on climate change in a retirement community as big, conventional and fuel-dependent as The Villages makes Sue Michalson a more powerful force for change in her circles than Naomi Klein, whose audiences already agree with what she says, in hers.
The lesson for social-change communicators is to meet the Caring Middle on their own (sustainable) turf. The most surprising place my water and climate reporting has taken me is the pulpit – preaching not to the choir, but to the Caring Middle in their places of worship. My books have been part of a nationwide read by Unitarian Universalist congregations; a Christian reader’s guide; and an interfaith guide to water. This fall, at the Society of Environmental Journalists’ annual conference in New Orleans, a group of us met for a beat dinner with religious leaders to discuss whether faith may work where science and politics have failed to draw the Caring Middle to stem environmental injustice, pollution and climate change.
Not as salacious as sex among retirees, but a far less predictable story – one that just might help save the planet.
Cynthia Barnett is a long-time environmental journalist who has reported on water from the Suwannee River to Singapore. She is the author of “Mirage,” “Blue Revolution” and the forthcoming book “Rain: A Natural and Cultural History.”