The culture of doom amongst conservationists reduces their ability to engage and mobilise the public. Success stories need to be told more often, and in a way that can inspire the public and provide hope for a more ecocentric future.
Fear is an ineffective communication tool
The Earth’s beauty and diversity is threatened by human activity. On a daily basis, we are bombarded with distressing news of forests being destroyed for mines, climate change killing the Great Barrier Reef, unique species being lost forever.
Amidst this doom and gloom, we rarely hear about conservation success stories. Yet conservation action has achieved many spectacular wins – including rewilding wolves in Yellowstone, cutting deforestation in Brazil, and recovering seabird populations in the Gulf of St Lawrence.
However, these success stories fail to attract attention. The typical narrative is one of shock, fear, and pessimism. A scan of today’s issue of making environmental news reveals only 11 positive stories from the total of 52 environmental news headlines (and that’s a good day!).
The media plays a key role in fuelling this fatalism. Scientists also don’t help – by presenting worst-case scenarios of the consequences of current practices, without offering potential alternatives. Innate scientific uncertainty may also cause scientists to be overly cautious when talking about successes.
Conservation practitioners also make the mistake of believing that educating people about the depth of environmental destruction will spur them to take action. Psychological studies have shown that this is ineffective, and leaves many people feeling apathetic and uninspired to act.
Many of us are already deeply aware of the problems faced by the natural world. We just don’t know what to do about them.
This despair about the future of the planet has been described by scholars as:
- Solastalgia – Glenn Albrecht’s term to describe the homesickness that one feels when one is still at home, but the environment has been irreparably damaged
- Eco-phobia – David Sobel’s term to describe a fear of ecological problems and the natural world
- Environmental grief – Kristine Kevorkian’s term to explain the emotional response to loss of ecosystems
This culture of doom also causes problems for scientists and conservation practitioners. Failure to share information about successful initiatives stymies the development of further solutions, and keeps morale low.
“(We) feel angry, discouraged and hopeless about the state of the planet…alienated from family and friends…..enmeshed in materialist cultures…ashamed….of the contradictions between…full knowledge of the horror of climate change’s impacts and (our) own lifestyles” (Kelsey & Armstrong, p189)
The need for hope and sharing successes
We need a new approach to conservation communication that provides a picture of a future that could work. We need hope.
This is the key message of Circumnavigating Hope – an international collaborative project run by the Zoological Society of London, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society. The project draws on multiple disciplines and creative approaches to shift the dominant environmental narrative beyond doom and gloom.
One of the key contributors to the project is Dr. Elin Kelsey, a researcher, educator and author with a background in marine protection. Dr Kelsey’s research focuses on the emotional responses of children, environmental educators and conservation scientists to existing culture of doom.
“I have discovered that a critical piece in shifting the dominant environmental narrative beyond …is connecting people with authentic, peer-reviewed, scientific examples of successful conservation outcomes. They need to believe that species can and do rebound, to understand that ecosystem resilience is possible, and to see proof of successful conservation outcomes in order to feel authentically hopeful about the state of the planet and their capacity to influence it”
( Kelsey, n.d.)
As argued by Andrew Knight in Conservation Letters, rather than documenting a catalogue of on-going crisis, conservation scientists must start producing research outputs that are positively framed solutions.
Circumnavigating Hope contributor Nancy Knowlton hopes to lead the way for marine scientists to move away from the glut of research that writes nature’s obituaries, towards research that highlights past successes and seek new solutions.
Engaging the public with love, stories and active participation
The public needs to feel hopeful about the future of the planet and their ability to influence this.
Scare tactics don’t work. As recently pointed out by George Monbiot, neither does appealing to extrinsic values like wealth or prestige. Putting a price on the value of nature does not motivate people to change their behaviour.
“I don’t know anyone who became an environmentalist because she or he was worried about ecological impacts on their bank balance.” (Monviot, 2014)
Instead, conservation communication should appeal to people’s intrinsic values like self-acceptance, freedom, creativity, and self-respect.
Studies conducted by the Common Cause for Nature show that environmental campaigns are more successful in motivating people to take positive action on behalf of the environment when they:
- Inspire positive emotions – including love, wonder and respect for nature
- Talk about people, society and compassion – as well as the natural world
- Explain why things are going wrong
In an increasingly techno-cratic world, and as children spend less and less time outdoors, it is vital for environmental educators (and parents) to help nurture children’s biophila (i.e. love of nature).
Research has shown that empathy with and love of nature grows out of children’s regular contact with the natural world. Hands-on, informal, self-initiated exploration and discovery in local, familiar environments are often described as the best ways to engage and inspire children and cultivate a sense of wonder.
Conservation professionals must improve their communications skills. As argued by Monbiot, this requires using different words:
The language we use to describe our relations with nature could scarcely be more alienating. “Reserve” is alienation itself, or at least detachment: think of what it means when you apply that word to people. “Site of special scientific interest”, “no take zone”, “ecosystem services”: these terms are a communications disaster. Even “environment” is a cold and distancing word, which creates no pictures. These days I tend to use natural world or living planet, which invoke vivid images.
Stories can be a powerful vehicle for inspiration. Stories and examples give a real context to an issue, and effectively convey complex messages through simple narratives. Good storytellers can motivate action and mobilise resources to achieve success.
Robert Redford’s recent Huffington Post blog urges environmentalists to reframe the conversation by “pairing scary statistics with inspiring stories of environmental activism”.
Programs that increase public participation in nature-based activities are also vital. Restoration work – such as bushland regeneration activities – can result in personal transformations that empower people to engage with environmental issues and take further action.
My own experience as an EarthWatch volunteer – working with local community conservationists to monitor Trinidad’s endangered Leatherback Sea Turtles – spurred me to change my career to a conservation-focused one.
The need for more positive conservation communication does not negate the need for research and papers about the damage we’re inflicting on the planet and our future generations. We need to know what is going wrong and why.
Alongside this, scientists need to start sharing more stories of what they are doing about this, and what is working (or not). Conservationists needs to stop scaring and depressing the public – and start inspiring us to act.
References and further reading
Blackmore, E., Underhill,R., McQuilkin, J.& Leach, R. 2013. ‘Common Cause for Nature – Values and Frames in Conservation‘,
Kelsey, E. and Armstrong, C. 2012. ‘Finding hope in a world of environmental catastrophe’, Chapter 11 in: Learning for sustainability in times of accelerating change, edited by: Arjen E.J. Wals and Peter Blaze Corcoran
Knight, A.T. 2013, ‘Reframing the Theory of Hope in Conservation Science’, Conservation Letters Volume 6, Issue 6, pages 389–390, November/December 2013
Monbiot, G. 2014, ‘An Ounce of Hope is Worth a Ton of Despair’
White, R. & Stoecklin, V.L. 2008, ‘Nurturing Children’s Biophilia: Developmentally Appropriate Environmental Education for Young Children’, White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group
‘Pollution and power lines in northern China’ by Adam Cohn, available on Flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0