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How to make a completely useless online environmental petition in 5 easy steps

Sites like Care2 and Causes, for better or for worse, make it easier than ever to write and distribute petitions

Sites like Care2 and Causes, for better or for worse, make it easier than ever to write petitions

Online petitions have become a popular tool of the conservation movement. A well-written petition can be an important tool for helping to shape policy, particularly when used as part of a larger and well-organized lobbying and advocacy campaign. Many petitions, however, are so badly written as to be ineffective or even counterproductive when it comes to influencing real policy change. Even worse, they falsely perpetuate the idea that an activist has “done something” about the problem, which may prevent them from participating in a process that could result in real change.

In case you want to join the numerous  activists who are filling my Facebook news feed and e-mail inbox with useless petitions, here is an easy 5 step guide for you to to follow, using examples from some real petitions I’ve been asked to sign.

A note on terminology: Petitions typically contain a few basic elements, which I term here “the problem”, “the target”, and “the solution”. The problem briefly describes the undesirable situation that the petition hopes to remedy. The target is who the petition is directed at. The solution is what should be done about the problem.

1) Make up a problem entirely, or change key details about it (i.e. “lie”) . Obviously, if a problem isn’t actually happening (or isn’t happening as you describe it) it can’t really be solved, and any effort spent signing or promoting that petition is a complete waste of time.

Shortly after I became involved in online science and conservation communication, a petition to “stop fishermen from using live dogs as shark bait” was circulating around Facebook. This sounds horrible, and if it is happening, it should be stopped. However, as a thorough Snopes.com factcheck reveals, it wasn’t really happening. A few fishermen were illegally using dead dogs (that had  been hit by cars) as bait, and had been arrested and prosecuted for this already by the time the petition started circulating. There was no epidemic of fishermen rounding up live dogs. There was no problem to solve, rendering the petition useless at solving the problem.

Some particularly bizarre petitions seem to focus on extremely specific events that took place in the past rather than ongoing issues. For example, one petition that numerous people asked me to sign reads:

“To: American Museum of Agriculture in Lubbock, Texas

“Dear American Museum of Agriculture Director and Board members,
we the undersigned are extremely disturbed that your museum recently purchased two old mules from a local horse and mule trader and then euthanized them for a “realistic” farm display.
One mule was apparently 28 years old and the other was 32.
The whole issue is extremely saddening and the Board of Directors need to be held accountable for this act of Animal cruelty.
Sincerely …”

Ok… two mules were killed for a museum display and some people are unhappy about it. What should be done? The mules can’t be un-killed. There’s hardly an epidemic of farm animals being killed for museum displays. What exactly is the purpose of this petition?
Additionally, it should go without saying that your petitions shouldn’t involve making stuff up. My list of “13 things that are wrong about sharks that shark conservation advocates should stop saying in 2013” seem to show up pretty regularly in shark conservation petitions. As I said on twitter in response to this petition, when you say “sharks are essential to our survival”, I hear “I am a crazy person who doesn’t understand science”.

2) Fill your petition with typos and grammatical mistakes so it looks like it was written by a child. The governmental agencies that make environmental policy are tasked with balancing the needs of multiple, often competing stakeholders. Their decisions can conceivably result in a species going extinct, or an entire fishing community going out of business. In short, they have a very serious job to do, and to be taken seriously, professionalism is key.  A great way to get them to ignore what you have to say completely is not to bother to spell-check your petition. There are countless examples of petitions that are so poorly written that I can’t even tell what they’re trying to say, but in terms of grammar, typos, and logic, this is among the worst I’ve seen:

Shark Fin Soup is often used as a natural medicine and is the sole cause for Shark Finning as it can be sold at a very expensive price which means that the Shark Finning industry could potentially be a multi-billion dollar one, however, although many often claim that Shark Fin Soup d is venficial for your health it has little proven nutriotional value.” (source)

Obviously, if a petition actually IS written by a child (for a school project or something), it’s different. Additionally, some benefit of the doubt exists for non-native speakers of the language that the petition is written.  However, it isn’t hard to use spell-check or to ask a native speaker to look over something for you to make sure it makes sense.

3) Use a group or individual who can’t possibly help as your target. In many countries, environmental policymaking is a participatory process. If an appropriately-worded petition is directed at the right person, it can help to sway a decision. However, petitions that aren’t directed at people who can actually help are completely useless. For example, lots of shark conservation petitions are directed at “The Chinese Government” (example). As Henry Kissinger famously asked, “Who do I call if I want to speak to ‘Europe’ ?” Additionally, a petition circulating earlier this week asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and  CITES to stop shark finning, and neither group has any authority (none whatsoever) over fishing methods.

4)Don’t offer a specific solution to the problem. A great way to ensure that you petition is completely ineffective is to not propose a solution to the problem at all.  Telling the target that you’re unhappy with the status quo without suggesting a way to fix is  putting the onus on them to come up with a solution. If they’re willing to do that at all, it may not be a solution you like.

5) Offer a preposterous solution. While many petitions are unlikely to be successful (whaling and seal clubbing have continued despite decades of petitions and other activism), the best examples of preposterous solutions come not from petitions themselves, but from the messages included by those who sign them. In a recent blog post, I explained the issues behind the proposed European Union shark finning ban, and told readers how they could help get the ban passed. Numerous readers provided their own solution to the problem in the comment thread, including suggestions that the whole world go vegan, that everyone should stop mistreating all animals everywhere, and that all fishing be stopped. Yup, those things are totally going to happen because you commented on a blog.

Conclusions: What can we do about useless petitions? If, for some reason, you want to make a petition that can actually help, just do the opposite of what I’ve suggested here. I’m usually happy to sign and to promote a well-worded petition that has the potential to actually help solve an important environmental problem, and I’m always happy to take a look at a petition and tell you if there’s anything wrong with it.

These well-worded petitions that actually could help tend to have something in common- they’re almost all written by established, respected scientific or conservation organizations rather than individual  and unaffiliated “activists”. If you are a passionate and knowledgeable individual activist, I strongly recommend that before writing a petition, first check if an established, respected scientific or conservation organization already has a petition about that topic. If they do, think about what your petition hopes to gain that wouldn’t be gained by the existing petition, and consider helping to share theirs rather than writing your own.

If, on the other hand, you are a passionate activist that doesn’t know that much about the topic at hand, you probably shouldn’t be writing petitions (or writing website FAQs or blog posts, or taking interviews with the media, or teaching students or people in the community). If you care a lot of about something but don’t know very much about it, it doesn’t make you a bad person, and it doesn’t mean that you can’t help fix the problem, but it should automatically preclude you from being a public leader in that movement.