Doom and gloom won't save the world
The best way to encourage conservation is to share our success stories, not to write obituaries for the planet, says Nancy Knowlton.
In 2001, my colleagues and I at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, California, founded the Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation. Core to our programme was an interdisciplinary summer course, which brought together students ranging from marine biologists to physical oceanographers, economists and anthropologists. We thought of it as medical school for the ocean.
We began with what we thought was a logical starting point — the state of the ocean. These were depressing lectures. Doom and gloom consumed the entire course. Basically, we were training our students to write ever-more-refined obituaries for the seas.
We quickly realized the folly of focusing so much on the problems — we could see it on our students’ faces. There had to be another way. After all, in medical school the focus is on preserving life, not describing death. So in 2009, my husband Jeremy Jackson and I began running symposia at academic meetings called ‘Beyond the Obituaries’, which were about success stories in ocean conservation. A small workshop in 2014 led to a Twitter campaign, #OceanOptimism, which has now reached more than 76 million Twitter accounts.
This journey has taught me several lessons. First, unrelenting doom and gloom in the absence of solutions is not effective. Social scientists have known for decades that large problems without solutions lead to apathy, not action. Yet much of conservation communication still seems to be focused on scaring people into caring.
As a community, we seem to be addicted to despair. For example, when the West Indian manatee (Trichechus manatus) was bumped down from endangered to threatened status under the US Endangered Species Act last month, many environmentalists protested and worried about relaxed protections, rather than celebrating the practices (boat speed limits and winter-refuge safeguards) that enabled the animals’ partial recovery.
Second, an extraordinary number of success stories are largely unknown — not just to the general public but also to conservation scientists, policymakers and philanthropists. Searching Twitter for #OceanOptimism (and its offspring #EarthOptimism) is still one of the best ways to find examples. My favourite instance of unrecognized success was the 2015 announcement of the recovery of seagrasses in Tampa Bay, Florida, to 1950s levels. Of the 300 or so people I have mentioned this to (including 200 marine scientists at a research meeting in Tampa), fewer than 10 were aware of this important conservation achievement, which was the result of keeping fertilizer-filled run-off waters from flowing into the bay. Elsewhere, stocks of Chilean loco (an edible sea snail), Madagascar octopus and marine fish in parts of the Philippines are healthier thanks to the establishment of small-scale, locally empowered, sustainable fisheries.