The problem with negative messaging in conservation, and why we need to regain hope

The conservation movement has historically employed mostly negative messaging to convince people of the need for change if we are to save our beautiful, threatened planet and the biodiversity within it. Examples include journal articles and news stories stating that between 30 & 50% of species could be doomed to extinction by 2050, and that anthropogenic (human) activity has sped up the rate of species extinctions by 100 times during the last century.

Most recently, and the subject that has led me to write this blog piece, is the reported ‘death’ of the 25 million year old Great Barrier Reef ecosystem located in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Australia. With the turn of the century, and the acceleration of climate change, the GBR has sadly faced mass coral beaching, leading to the death of large sections of coral. The story, featured in Outside magazine, is in the form of an obituary, and recounts the history of the Great Barrier Reef, efforts made to counteract coral bleaching, and ending with this:

“The Great Barrier Reef was predeceased by the South Pacific’s Coral Triangle, the Florida Reef off the Florida Keys, and most other coral reefs on earth. It is survived by the remnants of the Belize Barrier Reef and some deepwater corals.

In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to Ocean Ark Alliance.”

Other news stories describe how 93% of the GBR is “practically dead”, or “almost dead”.

However, in reality, the situation is not quite as dire as this obituary and related news stories are proclaiming, as not every single reef was surveyed, and of those that were, 46% were less than 30% affected by bleaching. Furthermore, research has demonstrated the extraordinary resilience of coral, with its ability to recover from past mass bleaching events in other parts of the world.

ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies

Aerial survey of the state of the Great Barrier Reef. ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies.

This is not to understate the severity of the threat the GBR is facing, but rather an attempt to shift the focus from a state of mourning and loss to a state of hopefulness and determination to help this biodiverse ecosystem (which is also an important tourist attraction) recover. A focus on messaging designed to shock and instil fear and sadness into society is certainly effective in raising awareness about the issue, demonstrated by the obituary’s 1.37 million shares, but it does little to inspire positive action for change. In fact, research into environmental psychology has shown that it does exactly the opposite, as people feel overwhelmed and daunted by the challenges faced and therefore shy away from any attempts to solve the problem. The most effective messaging in inspiring behaviour change in fact is that which embodies positivity, and empowers people, showing them that they can take action to improve the situation.

This can be seen within successful ecotourism projects that encourage local communities to see their wildlife and ecosystem resources as valuable and worth protecting, changing previously negative or indifferent views. It can also be seen within conservation communication at zoos and wildlife parks, which demonstrate to their visitors the value of the money they donate to in situ and ex situ conservation projects, as well as what small behavioural changes they can make in order to contribute to tackling climate change.

A change is due in conservation, which needs to become more inspiring and more motivating in order to encourage people to become conservation citizens. Society is already facing negative media messages regarding issues such as the economy, Brexit and the Syrian refugee crisis. On top of all this, negative messaging regarding the environment is surely much too overwhelming for the average person, who is also worrying about ‘everyday’ issues such as their job, paying the bills, and personal relationships. However, if amongst all this negativity, we change the focus of conservation from ‘doom and gloom’ to a celebration of successes and positive impetus for problem-solving and facing the challenges ahead, we have a much better chance of encouraging society to follow us and aid us on our journey.

The change is already beginning though, with a Conservation Optimism summit scheduled for April 2017, as a demonstration of notable successes achieved by conservationists thus far, and a call for more optimism within our movement. It is hoped that this summit, through positive messaging and hope, will play a part in rallying support for conservation and affecting change for the better.

Personally, and I hope this point resonates with many others, I believe it is crucial for hope, optimism and determination to resonate throughout the conservation movement if we are to really make a difference and bring about the positive behavioural changes needed across society to ultimately ensure the survival of currently threatened species and ecosystems.

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Joanna Trewern

Joanna Trewern

RSPCA Wildlife Care Assistant and recent MSc Conservation, Biodiversity & Management graduate from the University of Oxford. Interests in British wildlife, rewilding, conservation communication and education.

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