Conservation is a broken record that needs changing

We're already aware of the problems the natural world faces, it's time the conservation community shares what's being done about it, says Tom Lawson

We're already aware of the problems the natural world faces, it's time the conservation community shares what's being done about it, says Tom Lawson

I awoke to my usual routine: with the sun shining and a cup of tea in hand I set to reading the news. Immediately I came across the headline: World ‘on the verge of next mass extinction.’ And it’s humankind that’s to blame, according to the Duke University study the article cites. It was the kind of story that could really ruin someone’s day. But stories like this no longer have much of an impact on me. I began reading, but by the third paragraph I was quickly losing interest. It’s not that I don’t care, it’s that I’ve heard it all before.

A quick Google search for ‘humans’ and ‘mass extinction’ reveals not just the article I found, but similar results from the BBC in 2012, Science in 2011, The Guardian in 2010 and the New Yorker in 2009. We’ve been talking about the same things for a long time.

The week prior to reading the article I attended Circumnavigating Hope, a two-day workshop on how conservation issues can be communicated more effectively. It brought together scientists, communicators and campaigners to ask why success stories aren’t being told and how that can change. Although it was acknowledged that the media plays a major part in fuelling disengagement, Circumnavigating Hope explored the idea that the conservation sector itself; from scientists to NGOs to campaigners, also plays a huge part in the communication problem.

“In the marine conservation community there’s a total failure to talk about successes”

“Mistakenly, the conservation community often buys into the narrative of shock and fear in the belief that knowledge of just how bad things are will spur people to action,” said Circumnavigating Hope co-ordinator Elisabeth Whitebread. Equally, scientists often present worst-case scenarios of the consequences of current practices without offering up the possible outcomes of alternative courses of action.

However, numerous psychological studies, including one carried out by researcher and fellow Circumnavigating Hope participant Elin Kelsey, have shown that communicating negative messages about the state of the environment leaves many people feeling apathetic and uninspired to act. Dr Ingolfur Blühdorn of the University of Bath goes as far as to suggest that some negative environmental messages are so counter-productive that people block out the messages they’re being told by increasing their consumption of consumer goods rather than adopting more sustainable behaviours.

Alex Steffen, a climate journalist and futurist, who spoke at the event via Skype, suggested that we should move past informing people about problems. “Education in terms of raising the alarm is no longer a priority,” he said. “People have to have a sense of a future that could work.”

The workshop highlighted the fact that there are no shortage of potential solutions and positive stories out there, the problem is they simply aren’t being communicated effectively, even by the sector that’s working to create them.

“In the marine conservation community there’s a total failure to talk about successes,” said Nancy Knowlton, a coral reef biologist who runs the Smithsonian Ocean Portal, an online collection of ocean success stories. She also suggested that innate scientific uncertainty could be causing scientists to be overly cautious when talking about successes and that pressure to continuously carry out new research leaves little time for reflection. “Once we solve a problem, we forget that we’ve actually done something to make things better and instead just focus on the next problem,” she said. Platforms for scientists to share these stories, even just with each other, could help the development of further solutions and boost morale to spur further positive action.

“Raising the alarm is no longer a priority. People have to have a sense of a future that could work”

The workshop discussions also recognised that stories not only need to be told more often, but told differently. At one end of the spectrum there is the media, which although writing in an easily digestible form, can sometimes misinterpret or mislead, and at the other are scientific papers, whose language and content are inaccessible to most. “Not all scientists need to be good communicators and not every scientific paper needs to be public facing,” says Ralph Underhill from Common Cause, however it was agreed that collaboration between the two sectors could be improved, for example through basic communications training for scientists and scientific training for journalists.

Meanwhile, platforms such as social media and citizen journalism present an enormous opportunity for the public to play a role in sharing positive stories, while other formats could also help create more engaging narratives, including entertainment media and exhibits in public spaces.

Underlying all of this though is the need to embrace the complexity that all stories have. The media tend to oversimplify things, preferring to see issues in black and white, while conservation campaigns are often targeted, avoiding the wider context – and perhaps one of the reasons scientists are reluctant to share successes is the fear of criticism for failing to recognise the bigger picture.

“No story is completely negative and no story is completely positive,” argued anthropologist Susanne Schmitt. But it is most often that stories of success, even minor ones, are overlooked. The vast complexity of the natural world should be reflected and celebrated in the stories we tell about it.