A lot of people like Shit, but many more like Fucking, and though I'll never write a lead sentence like this in my career again, I'm damn sure I now have your attention.
Cusswords have a gift for commanding it. They're crass but, sadly, often effective. And you can look to popular Facebook pages like I Fucking Love Science for all the proof needed: It's nearing 6 million "likes." (IFLS' "child friendly mirror page," called Science Is Awesome," currently counts around 423,000.)
Given the right degree of edginess, people can be made to pay attention to stuff they otherwise wouldn't — for instance, nearly hourly posts about geeky science topics ranging from chemistry (say, a snapshot of a white Nissan Cube whose vanity plate is the chemical equation for glucose) to astronomy (celestial porn).
Similarly, nobody can convincingly assert that Facebook's Give a Shit about Nature page would be enjoying its audience of around 210,000 if its name were instead something toothless and compliant, like Nature Rocks, or I Really Really Care About Nature ... Seriously, Guys. Not when the page deals with Big Oil, renewable energy, forest fodder and only the occasional pic of something furry and cute that's not a lolcat.
GASAN happens to be run by Colorado Springs-based 25-year-old Thomas Nelson. And as you might presume, he effing loves nature. So much so that he's built a full-time business out of his page's blowup, turning monetization into true activism. More than 42,500 trees have been planted in GASAN's name already, and that's in fewer than 15 months. No shit.
To suck on the swear-factor just a moment longer, Nelson explains GASAN's genesis as rather literal: "I thought to myself, 'I wish more people gave a shit about these issues.' I realized I gave a shit, so why not create that blog, the page and start reaching out? It'd give me a platform to talk about things I think matter."
Though IFLS was founded on March 10, 2012, three weeks prior to GASAN, Nelson says he wasn't aware of it until many months later. "It cracked me up. I was like, 'Oh well, it's a little bit like what I'm doing, and she gets the same complaint about the page name that I do.'
"There are people that are like, 'You know, I give a shit about nature, that's cool, but I want to share this with my grandchildren.' I just say, 'Well, you can simply pull the content off of the page. Or you could put the word 'shit' into context for them and let them know that it's not OK to say it, but this is what this means.'
"Or you can not rely on a Facebook page to give a child their ecological education."
But with sporadic dissent arrived supporter after supporter (including the band Cake and actor Chevy Chase, incidentally). Nelson averaged 719 new people per day for the month of June, and he's hit around 1,000 daily on randomly busier weeks.
And they hail from everywhere: more than 10,000 in the U.K.; 9,000 in Australia; 3,000 in India; and into the lower thousands from several EU countries and areas of South America. Nearly half of his total following stems from outside the U.S.
"Not long after I started the page," Nelson says, "I had a 13-year-old girl from South Africa post on the timeline, and she said something like, 'I'll put a dollar in the swear jar, but I don't care, I'm 13 and I give a shit about nature.'"
Nelson himself was reached by mainstream messaging in his youth — in part by cartoons, the preferred pre-Facebook day-waster of several earlier generations of budding activists.
"I think my first encounters with, I guess you'd call it environmentalism," he says, "would have to be a recycling program that my elementary school picked up when I was in the fourth grade. And I think that same year, Rocko's Modern Life had a recycling and composting episode that had a pretty big impact. And so growing up, I always knew that taking care of the environment was important and we have to be mindful of what we do."
Before moving to the Springs with a couple of friends in 2006, he pursued independent studies ("a kind of home-schooling") during his high school years in Moreno Valley, Calif. As for his early childhood, he grew up in a town of around 5,000 people called Eureka, near Peoria, Ill. He recalls "always playing outside as a kid," catching fireflies in the summer, tracking rabbit footprints in the snow come winter, taking bicycle rides with his family around a lake, and hiking nearby trails.
With such peaceful outdoor memories, it's perhaps no surprise that Nelson has little use for the destructive methods of some environmental groups — say, for instance, the Earth Liberation Front, which is locally notorious for having torched parts of a Vail ski resort in 1998. Instead, he plants trees with some of the money he earns through the sales of T-shirts and stickers. The aforementioned 42,500 trees have sunk roots into soil via the 24-year-old, Maryland-based nonprofit Trees for the Future, which works to reforest degraded areas of developing nations.
"I'm not the kind of person who chains himself to the tree," Nelson says. He continues, "I think of myself as being pragmatic about all of this ... teaching the community why the tree is important and why that guy has chained himself to that tree. If you can do that, then you don't need the militant environmentalist taking extreme actions."
Nelson also contributes to local efforts, such as a recent donation of 216 low-flow faucet aerators to Greccio Housing, which he estimates will save 750,000 gallons and $2,000 for lower-income families annually. He's also given 472 aerators to Colorado Springs Utilities, which he projects will save another 6 million gallons of water and about $13,000 each year.
Though he's presently searching for a new office space with fewer flights of stairs, Nelson has been operating GASAN out of a 350-square-foot, third-floor space above Jives Coffee Lounge in Old Colorado City. When I meet him there back in early May, he pours me a strong mason jar of dark roast as we chat, sidled up to a neat coffee table.
Thin, square-frame black glasses jut out from his short red hair, and when he discusses GASAN and its mission, he does so with a palpable intensity. A paper print-out on a nearby wall reads, "A tiger doesn't lose sleep over the opinion of sheep." Opposite it, a Sierra Club endangered species map warns, "Once they're gone, they're lost forever." His iPhone-tethered laptop displays a screensaver image of several armed soldiers standing guard over an endangered rhino.
On a typical day, Nelson says he starts work around 7 a.m., scanning Tumblr and Facebook pages he's partnered with, looking for source material for the day's posts. Essentially he's an aggregator, providing attribution for the material, but doing no reporting of his own.
"They do it better than I do, so I just try to promote the important work that other people have done," he says. "I try to put stuff out there that will resonate with a 6-year-old or 60-year-old ... to [give] an idea of what kinds of things are happening right now, what kinds of things that we can do to lessen any negative impacts that we might have."
He spends the early afternoon usually filling orders: printing labels, stuffing shirts into recycled plastic sleeves made by Longmont-based EcoEnclose, and making a daily run to the post office. Stacks of shirts on foldout tabletops comprise the critical mass of his growing inventory.
Currently, there are two designs for sale, both created by 36-year-old area illustrator Amy Sullivan. One is the image of a black bear standing on its hind legs holding a "Stay Wild" sign, which Sullivan originally contributed to the highly successful Wild Fire Tees effort last year. The other is of a large bear's face with soft, sympathetic eyes, the snout forming the shape of a single tree inside the negative space, a fluid and very cool juxtaposition. Under the face, GASAN is spelled out in large letters, followed by the full site name in a much smaller font size, so the word "shit" isn't likely to be easily viewed in public passing.
"When the page got to around 20,000 people, I started getting requests for bumper stickers," explains Nelson. "I contacted Amy to have the stickers made, and I think she was the first to recognize that there was a lot of potential in GASAN and really jumped in with both feet."
Sullivan, at that point a stranger to Nelson, says, "I loved his blog and what he was posting, but I thought that he could actually raise some money to do more of what he loved to do." And she clearly wasn't wrong; a limited edition Javan rhino print she recently created for Nelson raised $650 that he donated to the International Rhino Foundation's Operation Javan Rhino campaign.
"I didn't plant all those trees — it was a community effort," says Nelson. "I think at the core of all [GASAN's followers], they do give a shit about nature at some level or another. They don't want our environmental heritage being trampled for economic or personal growth."
That's proven by a whole host of other "Give a Shit" Facebook pages (41 by Nelson's last count) that have sprung up in GASAN's wake. None are nearly as populated — Give a Shit about Bats has around 900 followers; ... about Bees around 7,000 and ... about Animals around 16,500 — but most are environment-related.
Because wherever, or from whomever they gleaned their green virtues, people just don't want to put up with that shit anymore.