"the least I can do."
Sandra Sobek is a longtime Earthjustice supporter, donor and "Superactivist." She has participated in more than a hundred online action alerts and maintains her own mailing list of environmentally concerned contacts. She spoke with intern Elijio L. Arreguin in the spring of 2013 about the importance of taking action.
Elijio L. Arreguin: You've responded to our action alerts more than 100 times since 2009. You're also an Earthjustice donor. Why did you decide to get involved with Earthjustice's work?
Sandra Sobek: I loved the motto "The earth needs a good lawyer," and I was very taken with the fact that there were attorneys, who could be out there making small fortunes in other arenas, who were instead contributing so much time and energy to environmental issues.
Also, the approach of working through the court system felt inspirational to me. I connect with a number of different environmental groups, but Earthjustice is a favorite of mine in terms of what sounds like a really solid way of going about things.
Elijio: You grew up in Boston. Do you recall any local environmental issues that were relevant to you growing up?
Sandra: [Laughs] Pardon my laughing, but conversations about the environment were so not part of the picture and unfortunately are nowhere near part of the picture they should be even today. I s;grew up in Lynn, Massachusetts, a working town. My father was a blue collar worker and spent all of his time on the picket lines fighting with the union against General Electric. So I was raised in a political household, but the environment was not something that was talked about much back then. In fact, a few years back I was visiting Costa Rica for the first time, and I remember meeting with some naturalists who asked how much the environment was a subject of conversation in the United States around elections. I looked at them and sadly said, "None. Not part of the conversation at all."
It took years before someone like Obama acknowledged the issue in a public way. One of the reasons that I do what I do is because of the serious lack of media exposure and conversation around environmental issues. It's virtually nonexistent, and so I feel like the Internet is really our last hope for getting the word out. And when I write to people, I mention that to them—that it really is on our shoulders to get the word out to others. The amount of denial that exists is something we have to really work hard to crash through, as people just go about their daily lives as if nothing was going on in the big picture.
Elijio: When did the environment become more relevant to you?
Sandra: It's been a gradual process, but I have to say moving from the city into a very rural area and spending lots of time in the woods and really connecting with nature on a very visceral level has made all the difference. Falling in love with that and having that be so tremendously threatened has become intolerable to me.
I feel like a big piece of the problem is that people are very disconnected from the planet. I think about how much people and especially the decision-makers are living in concrete and so disconnected from the environment. I know there are efforts made on the part of some environmental groups like Sierra Club to get people out into the wilderness and experience it, but people are just very caught up in their day-to-day urban existence. So I think that's a real concern I have is how to make it real.
Elijio: Absolutely. Are there specific issues about which you feel particularly strongly or concerned?
Sandra: I think, honestly, it's all connected. I can't focus on one particular animal or location, and that's one of those things that became really clear to me the first time I went to Costa Rica where they talk about the interconnectedness of everything. So when I send emails out to people I cover a lot of different territories with the hope that something will grab somebody and make it real for them, and it might be saving the manatees in Florida, which [Managing Attorney] David Guest is working on, or working on the Baja [California] situation, but it must be something that brings it home to people in a real way.
Elijio: As a psychologist, what do you see as the power of taking action on the Internet via petitions and emails, and how can average citizens contribute to environmental protection?
Sandra: When I've had conversations with people about the stark reality of climate change and what's going on, folks tend to get, understandably, pretty overwhelmed, and the feeling is, "Well, what can I do about it except live my day to day life?"
So the purpose of the emails is to interject some concrete, tangible action that someone can take no matter how busy they are, because the collective action on the part of a significant number of people sometimes sways things in the right direction. I emphasize that it takes just a minute to click on a signature or in some cases call the White House to make things happen.
Part of what contributes to denial for some folks is the sense of being overwhelmed and the sense of powerlessness, so the emails that I send out are always ones that have an action connected with them. They're not just information. There's something where somebody, if they want, can do something about the problem at hand. So getting over the inertia and the malaise, to me, is a big part of what I feel needs to happen, and my effort is just a small piece of work in that direction.
I also try to make a more personal connection so I don't just forward the email that's sent to me. I introduce it with a sentence or two. People are more inclined to read something that has some personal note at the beginning. It's harder to walk away from somebody. I also accompany it with the whole Earthjustice piece, and if people want to read more then they can scroll down further. So it's kind of a way of trying to facilitate the process because when I talk to people they say, "Oh my god, I get so many emails." So I also limit the number of emails I send to two or three a week. And it would be great if other people did this; even if one person had three friends that were interested and sent things out and then those three friends moved it along, I think would be wonderful. How else do things go viral except through that?
Elijio: How do you connect with other Earthjustice supporters?
Sandra: One instance really stands out. I was really pushing people to call the White House. People, I think, are intimidated by the idea of calling the White House. So one woman wrote back and said to me, "I did it!" And I wrote back to her, "Congratulations" or something to that effect to just facilitate that kind of action more. Calling the White House is actually an easy thing to do, but people don't often feel empowered enough to do it.
Elijio: How do you stay motivated?
Sandra: Even when it's discouraging at times, it becomes crucial to keep pushing and to not just accept what's going on. We have no choice except to fight for this cause because it's the cause of the very air we breathe and the water we drink and the future for our children. When people think about the fact that someone's willing to put their body on the line, I'm hoping that will motivate people to at least put their signature on the line because it certainly helps me when I think about people who are out there doing these very gutsy things. I think "My God, this is the least I can do."
One of the things that I often do in my emails is refer to Earth as our children's planetary home because people are so concerned about their children in terms of sending them to school, getting the right credentials, the right jobs, etc.—but I keep trying to build that connection to the planet so it's not so much of an abstraction. I find that people have a harder time ignoring the issues when they think about their own kids or grandchildren struggling with what they're going to be breathing and drinking.
People will put a lot of time and energy into their physical homes. They wouldn't dare let their houses go unpainted or let a roof leak, so I try to extend that to the bigger picture. When you put your feet on the ground, does a person realize they're putting their feet on the Earth? I don't think that people think about that, so we can't let the foundations of our physical houses go to hell, nor can we let the foundation of what's under our feet go to hell, either.
A condensed version of this interview was first published in the Summer 2013 issue of the Earthjustice Quarterly Magazine.