Using art as a way to promote an environmental cause is perhaps one of the most effective methods for mobilizing the masses. The 350.org EARTH project is one example of how artists are expressing their concerns about climate change and the need for action. On a much more local level, Plastic State of Mind is a YouTube video that’s recently received viral attention, pushing the issue of plastic waste into the public consciousness.
Ben Zolno, writer, producer, filmmaker, green entrepreneur, founder of New Message Media, and the biggest force behind Plastic State of Mind, has found a way to turn video activism into a full-time career and we wanted to find out how he did it. Joining him are two others involved in the making of the video. Jenni Perez is involved in urban sustainability, particularly as a direct organizer for the localized movement through Bay Localize. She’s also an artist and was the singer in the video. AshEL Eldridge III, an educator for climate action and youth leadership facilitator, is also a spiritual activist and poet and the starring male rapper in the video.
Ben: Green Sangha commissioned me to do this video. We found each other at a local clean energy alliance meeting that Jenni helped to organize and they heard about my passion for sustainability and the kind of work that I do, and that’s how we hooked up! They got a grant for very little money and had a poem of sorts that had been written by someone but it didn’t yet have a beat or anything.
I wanted it to be seen by more people so I said, “This is going to be big, I’ll do it out of pocket, other people will volunteer their time, which they did, and let’s make it more fun. Let’s make it a parody. Something that people are already looking to the Internet for. They want parody, they want hot music trends, so why not go to one of the most popular music tracks of 2010 – one of the more frequently parodied things people are already looking for that – and have a good time? Make it silly and stupid rather than straight and hard.” Green Sangha resonated with that early on so it was really easy to work together.
What logistics were involved in producing and creating a music video like this?
Ben: After selecting a song, about three hours went into writing the lyrics. Once approved, I created a storyboard to convey the idea fully. Since I can’t draw, the storyboard consisted of photos I found on the web, and web-cam photos of me in various poses. I then recorded my voice rapping and singing to a karaoke version of Empire State of Mind, and played it back for my client to give them an idea of what it would sound like.
I approached David Nakabayashi and Harrison Parker, who worked on a campaign to beat Prop 16 in California’s June 2010 primary election, about shooting the project. Harrison offered to create an animated story board to my voice track, to give the client, performers and crew an idea of what we were going for.
The next step was to record the artists. We recorded a new music track built from scratch by my neighbor Colin Menzies, the rapper, AshEL Eldridge, in his home office, and the singer, Jenni Perez, in a closet-turned sound studio, then mixed them well enough to have a working track for shooting the music video. Later, Amurai worked the track and added elements of his own to make the song really pop.
Considering the nature of the budget, the most challenging aspect was to coordinate talented volunteers for key positions, and to book the location. We used the amazing Good Earth Natural Foods in Fairfax CA – the only grocery we called that really understands the stakes of plastic pollution, and they were amazing. I worked with Amy English to coordinate, and by the end of the night/morning – we shot from 9 PM to 6 AM – we had what we needed.
In your opinion, how is art important in the movement to promote sustainability?
AshEL: Art is crucial. You look at any campaign that engages masses of people, art and culture is at the base of all of that. People need to be inspired. It’s becoming more essential today than ever. You look at the Glenn Becks of the world and performing artists – they all use art to get their message across. I work with many artistic mediums – hip hop, poetry – to address issues like water, green jobs, and so on. You can see some of it at Earth Amplified.
Ben: This is something that I’ve thought about for the last few years. People say it has to come from the government, it has to come from up high – but no, it’s really gotta come from the people, it’s gotta come from the bottom up. And I’ve actually swung toward that original thought – it doesn’t have to come from the ground up. It doesn’t have to be a grand movement of people rising up and saying, “No more” to the big corporations controlling everything from pesticides to energy use to soil depletion. It doesn’t have to come from beneath us.
At this point, we are a culture of people that are so engrained in our way of life, that are controlled by these major corporations because the idea is that we have to grow our economy further and further and further all of the time, that there’s no way people are going to say, “You know what? I don’t want to be part of this economy. I want to put down my cell phone. I want to go off and live on a farm somewhere sustainably, put down all my electricity, stop seeing my friends, stop taking these pills that are going to make me live longer.”
The point is that I think that art has a way of reaching larger audiences in a way that a straight message does not. A lecture that is up on YouTube or an article on a blog isn’t going to be as helpful as something that is already popular – that already has eyes yearning for it. When it comes to music and hip hop, that’s one of the things that people are already looking out for. So instead of creating a message and hoping people will come and see them, go to their art, where they already are and insert your message there.
Music is a great way to get a message together in a concise format just like any short form like a poem or something like that. Having restrictions there forces you to take really large subject matters and push them down into words, beats, tiny lines that normally you’d want to have a 200 page book for, but you have to get into 3 minutes. It’s a great artistic challenge.
How do eco problems relate to the other peace-making, social-justice problems you’re involved with?
AshEL: It’s all interconnected. I also work with Alliance for Planet Education, and we talk to hundreds of students about climate change, which is obviously connected to environmental justice issues. Poor people of the planet and communities of color are going to be the first and worst hit by climate change.
With that understanding, you can see that it’s all connected together.
In a capitalist infrastructure, we haven’t reconciled the disparity, which is really at the root cause of the climate crisis. If there was equity, we would find solutions to climate change. We have to connect all of the dots, there’s no way to separate them.
What goals do you have for this video?
Ben: Number of views is one of the only objective means of video success that you can have, unfortunately. You can kinda get a metric as to who’s watching them based on what YouTube (New Message Media’s YouTube Channel here) tells you because those are the people that are signed up for YouTube, or another Google service. But then you have to rely on the fact that people who are interacting with YouTube are telling them accurate information about their age, gender, income levels, etc.
So number of views I really appreciate – it’s a good quick reference as to how popular your video is, how well it is exposed. When it comes to with sponsors, and our sponsors – To-Go Ware and People Towels – it’s nice to be able to say, “Here’s how many view we have and here are the kinds of people that are seeing it.”
Another good measure is how bloggers pick it up. There are two results that we’re seeing from bloggers. The first is that people were taking copy from our tool kit or press release. Second, those that didn’t get that initial information from us are saying “Hey, I found this on our Facebook fan page,” or “Hey, I heard about this from a friend,” or one of the best ones is, “Hey, I can’t remember where I first saw this, but I think you should see it.” That means that it’s really getting out there.
When it comes to legislative changes, that would be the ideal – if we can have some kind of evidence that this video directly influenced supervisors of LA County who are people that saw the video before they made their decision to go ahead and ban plastic bags in the LA County and other areas. Or have the Governor see it and inspiring him to have a special legislative session to make sure that California bans plastic bags. They tried it in 1998, that didn’t work, but maybe seeing some momentum behind this, the amount of views it has, and having his staffers showing that they believe in this film and expressing to him the popularity of it, then I think that is a great tool.
That’s what it comes down to for me. If people are seeing it in general and they like it or hate it or are commenting, that’s nice. But, I’m spinning my wheels unless it’s making some direct or indirect policy change.
How are you promoting this video?
Ben: We had a three part process.
- We let everyone know that it was coming out soon – the week coming up. We did that by getting a list of all of the bloggers, calling some of our friends that are well-connected in the enviro world in the US and California. And we showed them a preview of the launch video. We told them we’d send them the real video and provide copy to make it an email blast.
- We asked people to send out an email blast to their viewers because a Facebook post is really nice but people might miss it. If they post at two in the morning and no one sees it – or not the important people, which would be people that have the most friends, or the friends that are most active – if those people don’t see it, it’s not as significant. People can forward the email, look at it any time, post it to Facebook, etc. We also gave them sample Tweets, sample Facebook posts, embed codes and things like that.
- The day before the launch, we reminded people that the video was coming out the next day. Then the day of, on top of that, we at New Message Media went onto Facebook and made sure that every group and fan page we’re involved with on Facebook had something posted by us. Those of our personal friends that had the most friends or were the most active on Facebook were asked to make sure they posted something.
And we asked for personal assurances, “Can you send out this video tomorrow to all of your friends and do a little write-up on it?” We sent those to their individual email boxes. We also tag posted. We could have used a bigger hands-on team, but our budget for promoting this was almost nothing – totally pro bono.
Who is your target audience?
Ben: Usually what we try to do is have the target audience that has actual decision-making power – a politician, a policy maker, a CEO that can make the change, someone on the fence of the issue to let them know that they’ve got to make a change. This time, we were just asked to make a public service announcement. So it was mostly the general public but mainly also people that were going to be in different groups in our society – those that love music, those that enjoy comedy on the Internet, those that are into hip hop or parody in particular, definitely wanted to hit up people in the environmental community.
But we made it more mainstream so that it could reach people outside the choir. People inside the choir already know that they shouldn’t be using single-use plastic bags. Though we did have a line in there that said, “Shoulda brought your own bag, ya, but you forgot it, though.” That’s to hit up all of the enviro people that are so, “Ya, I’ve got my reusable bags” but forget them in the car.
What mistakes have you made in working with this kind of media?
Ben: One of the major mistakes I’ve made before is to make the pieces too direct. But people don’t like things that are too preachy, that tell them what to do – “Look, here’s the message, plastic bags are killing our environment, you should really stop.” Well, ya, duh. What you’re doing is really, really bad. People don’t want to hear what they really need to hear.
So the way to work around that is to get people where they are – get people where they are already doing something fun – something cute, for babies, for sex, for music. That’s how I try to fix that mistake.
Another mistake, is not making sure that I had all of the enviros or the groups that could help promote the video ahead of time. Not getting them involved early enough. Word of mouth doesn’t work on its own if it just starts from me and a couple of friends. I don’t have a magic key to the network. But I do know enough people that have enough influence at some of these organizations that offer me the power of getting people all around the world from different backgrounds to listen up and to be able to access that.
Another one that was a mistake on this particular project was that we allowed a leak of the video to stay online. The video was originally just for screening purposes. I put something up on Vimeo, 300 people saw it and it did really well. But then I guess some people were motivated enough to seek this video out on the Internet and send it to all of their friends.
The next thing we knew, it went to Julia Butterfly Hills page on Facebook, then Annie Leonard picked up, and it grew and grew, and we had over 1,000 hits a day and this made us nervous because the idea was that we wanted to launch all at the same time. We heard that to really make a video go viral you have to make it hot and make it what everyone’s talking about, they heard about it from four different sources, and the best way to do that is all in one day.
Other people had already written blogs about this, so we kept it up and asked people not to send it out. But what that did was got a lot of people to write us and ask how they could help on launch day. That’s how lots of organizations got the information from us to help with launch day. If we could do it again, we would have had just a 30 second or highlights to let people that this has production value, it’s good, funny, stupid – all the things that people really like in videos.
What other sustainability activism are you involved in? Is your activism a “full time job” or a side interest?
Ben: I started off working on issues of energy and peak oil. Peak everything from peak soil to peak fresh water to peak energy to peak coal. I’m involved in a lot of permaculture videos – getting people to understand how water cycle works, how biodiversity affects them. You can see some of my work on the site: New Message Media.
Thankfully, activism is my full time job. I make a good amount of money on smaller projects and then little or no money on comparable projects. It all depends on the budget people have. I work within peoples’ budgets that will help the most amount of people. It might only reach a small group of people, like policymakers, but it’s whatever will help.
What advice would you give other green activists to as they seek ways to make their message heard?
Ben: My advice – try to think about what everyone is doing, what everyone cares about, what is most universal, and try to meet them in that venue.
If I could give any kind of advice, I would say, “Go to where you are.” They won’t come to your rally, they won’t come to a demonstration, they just won’t do it. These don’t work. It’s not because I don’t believe in them. I really think rallies and demonstrations are the most forthcoming, clear, exciting things. They work for me.
But I really believe this is a generation of slacktivists, as they’re known, and that people are too busy to take a look outside of their world to say, “Okay, I’m going to make a huge change.” You have to go where they are. Are they into music? Great, make a music video.
Jenni: Aside from the primary work that activists are doing – aside from the videos they’re making, the talks they’re giving – I would suggest take your activism into your everyday world. Ben mentioned the concept that people don’t like activists coming off as preachy. I think that’s definitely true. I would suggest being an example. When you’re at the grocery store, don’t take the plastic bags, even if you’ve forgotten your reusable bag, don’t take it. Hold the five cartons of frozen ice cream in your hands and just make an example of what you’re doing and really walk the walk in addition to talking the talk.
AshEL: Make entertainment. To me, it’s obvious that environment is a right. It’s not that scientists are wrong, or politicians are wrong – it’s more about making the message compelling. Make us laugh, have people feel like they’re part of a movement. Magnetize people to a movement, a new plateau, a world without plastic bags. We could live in a world like that.