A couple of weeks ago, Stephanie asked if there is too much I in scicomm? This week, I’m asking whether there is too much doom and gloom in scicomm – or at least in scicomm related to wildlife conservation?
Two things have led me to this post. In December, Emily asked me for my thoughts on new year’s resolutions related to wildlife and nature. I don’t usually make specific new year’s resolutions, but I do enjoy the opportunity to reflect on life at this time of year. So, I’ve been considering Emily’s question. Also late last year, I read this blog post, “It’s time to bring positivity back to conservation“. Here, Billy Geary argues that:
“Conservation biologists have a responsibility to communicate facts that increase the awareness of environmental problems. But that isn’t enough. As advocates for conservation it is our responsibility to deliver messages that inspire action. It’s time to return positivity and hope to conservation.”
I completely agree with him. As conservation scientists, whatever our aims and motivations, at the end of the day what we are “selling” is hope. Hope that in the future our favourite species, or community, or ecosystem, will persist and thrive.
I took a look at my own scicomm efforts during 2015. I wrote a lot about threatened species and wildlife conservation, which naturally entails some fairly depressing reading. Take my post from exactly one year ago today, my Australia Day post on Australian wildlife conservation. I described the sorry state of Australian wildlife and listed a whole series of threats to conservation of species and ecosystems. It’s been a fairly popular post, but it’s not a happy read. In the face of so much loss, what hope is left? Well, actually quite a bit, and in later posts I shared some more promising stories, about efforts to save the numbat in Western Australia, and about ambitious proposals for rewilding ecosystems around the world.
As far as the ratio of gloom to hope is concerned, I think I’m doing OK, but I could do better… So, if I’m going to make any sort of new year’s resolution this year, perhaps it should be to focus more on conservation success stories. I’ve been reading quite a bit about hope and positivity in conservation over the last few weeks. There are a number of blogs on the topic (and the Geary post I linked to above provides a great summary of the issue), but it has also been discussed in the scientific literature, and more so than I had realised. It turns out there are many reasons why good news stories about conservation biology are important, but most of them can be distilled into three key themes, which I’ll briefly outline here:
1. Conservation success stories make for good PR and encourage public investment in conservation
For conservation actions to succeed, we need public support for those actions, and usually substantial investment of public resources to boot. In a paper titled The Culture of Conservation Biologists: Show Me the Hope! Swaisgood and Sheppard noted that, in the face of a constant stream of bad news, people may simply give up hope that their actions can make a difference to conservation.
“If conservation biologists are pessimists, who, then, will inspire the masses to follow us in our endeavor to save nature from humanity?”
This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t talk at all about threats to wildlife, in fact it is one of our “core duties” to do so, but we do need to find a balance between the negative and the positive. Likewise, Garnett and Lindenmayer argued that empowering stories can help conservationists to gain support from politicians, and encourage people to change their behaviours.
“Given that pessimism is as infectious as enthusiasm, a failure to acknowledge the major conservation achievements to date could mean that prophecies of doom might become self fulfilling.”
So, as scientists, we need to share good news stories to give hope to others and to retain the support of the public. This might be particularly important when engaging with children, as noted in this post about talking to kids about extinction with hope.
2. Conservation success stories provide inspiration for other researchers
Conservation biology is challenging and there is a lot that we, as conservationists, can learn from others. By sharing our own success stories, we might provide hope and inspiration for our colleagues. In a paper from 2011, Sodhi et al. wrote that:
“…results from both successful and unsuccessful conservation projects should be widely disseminated so that future successes can be repeated.”
Taking this further, Swaisgood and Sheppard specifically suggested that conservationists should build stories of hope into peer-reviewed publications and conference presentations, which are our primary means of communication with other scientists.
“…we cannot fix how we communicate to the wider public until we first address how we communicate among our fellow colleagues, and how we actually think and feel about what we are trying to do as professional conservation scientists”
3. Conservation success stories are good for ourselves
In a fascinating 2013 editorial in the journal Restoration Ecology, Hobbs wrote that:
“It could be argued that most ecologists and conservation biologists live mostly in a world characterized by loss, and hence are either wittingly or unwittingly in a constant state of grief.”
In the face of habitat destruction, extinctions and the apparent apathy of many to the plight of nature, perhaps we do struggle to envision any long-term future for the wildlife we care about. But, as Hobbs argued:
“In lamenting what is lost, it is also important to remember to rejoice in what is still here—or what could be there in the future.”
Anecdotally (N=me), I know that reading about conservation success stories helps to restore my own desire to make a difference. In a similar way, whenever I am feeling down, a walk in nature will lift me up again. Every time I see my garden full of insects and birds, or encounter rakali in an urban lake, I am witnessing a little piece of a conservation success story. I know that my actions (in planting native shrubs) and those of my fellow citizens (in maintaining the health of our waterways) have contributed to the persistence of wildlife around our homes. Restoring my own sense of hope is the first step towards inspiring hope in others.
So, in 2016, my aim is to make a sustained effort to share as much conservation good news as I can. I also want to contribute more to conservation success in other ways, for example by donating time and money to projects that inspire me. Perhaps others would like to join me? If so, you could start by checking out (or even contributing to) the hashtag #conservationsuccess on Twitter and follow blogs like Wild Melbourne, Conservation Blog and Australia’s Best Nature & Ecology Blogs (Facebook and Twitter) for positive stories about wildlife conservation. Also keep a look out for local citizen science projects and conservation crowdfunding projects to support.
I’ll end with a conservation good news story – check out this post from Conservation International to see some great camera trap images of wildlife thriving in protected areas!