Sunday, June 22, 2008

The goal of environmental awareness

We started something here, questioning environmental doom and gloom, and Rick has an interesting answer over at Malaria, Bed Bugs, Sea Lice, and Sunsets. Along with a provocative picture (left), seeming to accuse me of dodging problems and spouting happy talk. In the comments on Rick's post, Max makes claims about my unconscious(?) motivations?? Oh really?

What is the gist of this dispute? I think this is a debate over the purpose of raising environmental awareness. Let's explore this with two unrealistic and extreme straw people.

1. The goal of talking about ocean environmental problems is to motivate people to fix them.


2. The goal of talking about ocean environmental problems is to get people to understand them.

These two are not mutually exclusive, but they are different goals. I don't give a @#*&@^#*&^ whether or not people can pass a quiz on the real facts on ocean decline. I want them to get motivated to fix the problems. And I don't think redundant doom and gloom will build motivation, witness the Seattle Times opinion editorial that raised this.

Now I don't think Rick or anyone else actually wants people to pass a quiz, but sometimes enviros seem to act like that. We dump too much information on people trying to get them to understand too much about the issues. The view seems to be that people have to understand the threats pretty well in order to get motivated to solve them. And it's interesting to see complaints if people get motivated by celebrities or some other so-called fluffy approach that is emotion-heavy and fact-light.

This is what I'm after when I rail against too much enviro doom and gloom. We need to focus on building motivation, and scaring people with impending floods and storms is just not a good way to motivate environmental conservation. Our crises are slow and just not that scary. Extinction in 100 years for a whale? Yawn. Storms will get worse and they might flood your house. Click (the sound of the channel being changed). Scare tactics work better for things that are imminent. It worked (for awhile) regarding terrorism after 9/11, because we saw the threat was all too real.

Building environmental solutions over the long term will not happen through fear and scaring people. Sorry, not gonna happen. We need something better.

It's ironic that people can talk about how it's wrong to "soften" the message or otherwise focus on building motivation rather than delivering doom and gloom. What's the goal anyway?

This is not to pick on Rick. He has the right idea, and we're really pretty close in what we'd prescribe. But he does let the "don't soften the blow" criticism infect his message, and that's one place where I think he's a bit off track.


Up Welng said...

if the blogosphere does nothing more than allow us to challenge our assumptions and roll ideas around like this, mark, then it would still far exceed my expectations as an amazing tool and well worth the sink of my time...

it's late as i read this and i need to think this over more as you raise some cool distinctions here... but before i head to bed, one quick remark: i'm not sure i believe you 100% that you don't give a @#*&@^#*&^ (your blog so i'll watch my words) whether people can answer questions about the ocean correctly...


we are both former educators, so that's where part of my feeling comes from... but beyond that, i think that for people to achieve your goal, eg: " I want them to get motivated to fix the problems." they MUST have some basic cognitive connection or understanding...

as you point out yourself, mark, these goals are not mutually exclusive, but i think they occupy more of the same space as objectives in conservation...

anyway, looking forward to continuing the conversation....

Max said...

I'm so flattered that my comment actually got a mention in your post! I'd say I didn't mean to offend, but I did... After all, as much as I was talking down about Seattlites, I come from the city that's famous for booing Santa Claus; we're meaner to the people we like than to the ones we don't :) (Also, I was writing my comment while you were posting yours, which means I didn't see yours until after I posted and was not responding directly to you...).

But back to the topic at hand, I don't have a problem at all with a positive message but I do have a problem with denial, which is the the vibe I get from the type of message you wrote. And while denial doesn't require knowledge, it becomes much stronger when knowledge backs it. So when you write from the perspective of someone who quite obviously knows what you're talking about, but then tell us that we shouldn't say so much bad stuff, I take issue with that because it sends the entirely wrong message. Several other bloggers that I read such as Rick and and Miriam Goldstein both say all the bad stuff, but overall have a much more positive attitude in their delivery, and I think that is the key to a successful message. Just look at PZ Myers: he drives one of the most successful science blogs in the world with a very enthusisatic attitude towards what he regards as a very doom and gloom situation...

So while I do strongly disagree with you, I also do highly respect your opinion and very much enjoy reading it in your blog. I just tend not to speak up until I see something I don't like :)

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