IT STARTED six months ago when I made two modest contributions: one to Zero Population Growth and the other to the Nature Conservancy. I did so because I am what P.J. O'Rourke calls a "tree hugger." Putting it as simply as P.J. always does, this means I give money to causes that save trees. Those two organizations, I believe, address the root (overpopulation) and the trunk (land) of this campaign. Sending money to them makes me feel, if only in a marginal way, that I am serving some noble purpose, that I am doing some good.
As it happened, I was doing some bad. To my horror, those two measly contributions turned me into a Frankenstein of the forests, unleashing wanton destruction of the very thing I was sending money to save: trees. In the four months after I made my contributions, I received 69 pieces of mail from 34 different organizations. Obviously, I had been put on an easy-mark mailing list, my name and address sold to other like-minded outfits.
Most of the 34 groups were loosely affiliated with tree-hugging or its outer branches -- such as the Wildlife Fact File and the Whale Adoption Project. Some were towering old oaks of bleeding-heart liberalism in general -- like Amnesty International and Common Cause. But others were from another part of the forest entirely -- Choice in Dying, Covenant House, Oxfam America, Co-Op America, AmFAR, the Holocaust Memorial Museum, even Bruce Babbitt.
No matter where they came from, these 69 envelopes -- creating a pile on my desk at least eight inches high -- were bursting with "urgent" messages and "alarming" reports. Some were disguised as questionnaires or surveys. One billed itself as an "Official Notice of a Wheel of Winnings Sweepstakes." What they all had in common -- besides being fund-raising ploys -- was that they were made from paper. Dead trees. Heap my pile upon the piles in every other tree hugger's home and you have a major ecological catastrophe.
Never mind that these organizations consoled you with disclaimers like "Printed on Recyclable Paper," "Contains Recyclable Cellulose Window" and (my favorite) "Printed with Soy Ink." The bottom line was that a hell of a lot of innocent trees died for these shills.
Never mind, either, that some charitable souls might dignify my eight-inch pile as nonprofit fund-raising mail. Or that the people who get paid for designing it prefer to call their handiwork "direct mail." In my eyes, it's plain old junk mail.
Digging around a bit in my file cabinet (itself a morgue of dead trees), I happened on some other startling tidbits:
* According to Earth Works Group, 2 million tons -- tons, not pounds -- of junk mail are sent to Americans every year. That's about a tree and a half for every adult.
* Fully 44 percent of all junk mail is never opened. That's the moral equivalent of not eating everything on your plate in a world where people are starving.
* If a million people put a halt to their junk mail, 1.5 million trees a year would be spared the chain saw.
Why, then, don't the tree huggers of the world set an example and fight direct mail?
As with everything in life, it's not that simple. For one thing, tree huggers who receive fund-raising pleas from environmental groups probably discard less than 44 percent of it unopened. (Nothing moves a bleeding-heart liberal more than an actual bleeding heart.) These groups may also have few fund-raising alternatives to the Postal Service. Telephone soliciting is a monstrous violation of privacy (another liberal no-no), and door-to-door soliciting is not only intrusive but can present a physical threat to even the gentlest of alms-seekers.
* If indeed mail solicitation is here to stay, then I offer the following suggestions to both solicitors and huggers as to how to make it more efficient and less environmentally hazardous:
* Pare the money message instead of pushing the envelope. A postcard could suffice for most solicitations. The more subterfuge used (surveys, contest, questionnaires), the less likely that intelligent people will be moved to send money. This new scaled-down approach could even be used as part of the campaign:"We're saving trees by using this postcard . . . . YOU can save trees by sending us boatloads of cash."
* Reduce the number of mailings per year, or quarter, or however these increments of time are designated in the junk-mail world.
* Stop selling names and addresses of supporters. Sooner or later, people are going to get sick of being treated the same way by "do-gooders" as they are by the tree-gobbling corporations.
* Once someone has given money to your organization, get off his/her back for a year. Nothing cools a contributor's ardor more surely than endless demands for even more money.
* Make sure your organization's name and intention are clear at first glance. Enigmatic logos and acronyms are certain to get envelopes pitched into the recycle bin unopened -- at least in this tree hugger's home.
* Let the public know how efficient you are, or are not, with your funds. Here, thanks to the 1992 Combined Federal Campaign brochure, are the percentages of funds that several organizations spend on administration and fund-raising: Nature Conservancy (15.1), Zero Population Growth (17.1), Sierra Club (20.3), Friends of the Earth (14.9), Scenic America (19.4), Conservation Fund (6.3), Land Trust Alliance (21), Wilderness Society (17.9), Planned Parenthood-World Population (31.4).
* You fellow tree huggers could help the cause by using the no-postage-necessary return envelopes to send organizations an emphatic note: "No more mail, please."
* You could also try making your tree-hugger donations anonymously.
* Finally, you could simply move. I just did, and in the process I discovered something wonderful: The Postal Service does not forward junk mail to your new address.
Alan Bisbort is a writer in Arlington.