Hey, Environmentalists, Let’s Tell a Positive Story

We’re filling people with dread.

We’re dissolving oysters. We’re eating all the fish. We’re feeding the sea tiny bits of plastic. We’re scraping the seafloor smooth.

But we’re also training divers to become citizen scientists. We’ve made significant progress on tackling overfishing in the U.S. And oyster farmers are finding ways to adapt to ocean acidification.

What if the stories we told about the ocean weren’t all doom and gloom?

Can we foster a kind of hope that inspires people to protect our planet’s most precious resource?

These were the questions posed at a recent gathering of international conservationists outside London, one result of which was the birth of #OceanOptimism.

The workshop, Circumnavigating Hope, was organized by Dr. Nancy Knowlton of the Smithsonian Institution, author, speaker and Rachel Carson fellow Dr. Elin Kelsey, and Dr. Heather Koldewey of the Zoological Society of London. I had the pleasure of attending, alongside ten others who hailed from art, journalism, think tanks, advocacy and ocean exploration.

I was able to share some of what Upwell has learned in its big listening research and campaigning, and was delighted to spread the good word of Shark Week with the meeting’s participants. Other participants shared the fruits of their research as well.

Two of my favorite highlights include:

  1. Ralph Underhill, a researcher at the UK’s Public Interest Research Centre and Common Cause, shared his perspective on how values and frames affect our ability and willingness to take action to create a just and sustainable world. His research looked at the campaigns of several NGOs, and discovered that appealing to intrinsic values like self-acceptance, freedom, creativity, and self-respect inspires more and better action than appealing to extrinsic values like wealth or prestige.
  2. Paul Cox, the Director of Conservation & Communication at the National Marine Aquarium in Plymouth, UK, explained how his aquarium has made a commitment to sharing information with patrons in a positive light. It’s a mandate that stretches to every corner of the Aquarium’s operations. One recently completed research study that I found intriguing examined the psychological effects of “blue space” (i.e., rivers, lakes, or the sea) on feelings of restorativeness. Paul explained that as the proportion of sea included in a landscape image increases, so does a viewer’s sense of restorativeness, until a critical point where the image is all ocean, at which point they feel a certain level of fear.

Open ocean. (Credit: Alice Radford — Flickr)

We fear the unknown.

The ocean is huge, and there’s still so much we have yet to learn about it. Likewise, we are just beginning to scrape the surface of understanding the effects of climate change, as we simultaneously try to figure out how to mitigate and adapt.

One of the biggest struggles ocean communicators face is sharing the bits of hope and progress. Even we, the environmental crusaders, face moments of disappointment, fear, and dread when confronted with overwhelming problems like overfishing, pollution, climate change, and ocean acidification. How can we consistently speak positively about issues that in some moments feel unmanageable or too big to tackle?

How can we consistently speak positively about issues that in some moments feel unmanageable or too big to tackle?

It’s very difficult. But if we, as environmental communicators, fail to do that — if we fail to tell our success stories, highlight spots of hope, and inspire others to take action — we are likely to catapult our audiences into feelings of despair and hopelessness. People will feel overwhelmed and may give up entirely, diving further into destructive practices fueled by consumerism (and, as my brilliant colleague Matt Fitzgerald notes, these destructive practices “are the default settings for our economy.” #happyfuntimes).

Dr. Elin Kelsey has spoken on this topic many times (check out her TEDx talk here). She’s the perfect spokeswoman for hope: her smile is contagious and seemingly permanent, and her hunger for creative ideas and solutions arises not from any professional purpose, but a personal love for nature. She believes that the “failure to separate the urgency of environmental issues from the fear-inducing ways we communicate them blinds us to the collateral damage of apocalyptic storytelling.”

Elin begins her talks with a question: “How do you feel when you think of the environment?” The question stunned even this small group of conservationists into silence. We spend most of our waking hours thinking about the environment, but we rarely take time to consider how it makes us feel.

I’ll be honest: I felt fear. Although I work tirelessly to conserve the earth that we call home, to protect our natural places from our destructive practices, to find that magical lost space of sustainability and symbiosis between humans and the planet, I still felt little hope. I am a product of what Elin describes as a culture of doom and gloom. When she recently asked that question of a group of youth, the resounding answer was “dread.” How can we expect future generations to be the guardians of our environment if they feel overwhelming dread?

We are collectively experiencing what philosopher Glenn Albrecht calls “solastalgia” — a kind of nostalgia we experience for an earlier version of our current environment — alongside a heavy dose of shifting baselines. Just as nostalgia keeps us from appreciating the moment, solastalgia keeps us from moving forward proactively, and altogether, we’re missing out on knowing what we could be missing out on.

Telling the truth in a way that inspires action requires comfort with complexity.

Through 48 hours of fast-paced conversation, this small but powerful group outlined some concrete ways we can change our frame and enliven a movement around hope for our oceans.

Nancy Knowlton described her moment of realization that came when she was a science professor:

“We were training our students to write ever more refined obituaries of nature.”

She now works to collect, tell, and share stories of success. Even with her scientific training, she believes that stories — not facts — are the vehicle for inspiration. While at Scripps, she began Beyond the Obituaries, a project to collect success stories in environmental conservation. She continues the project now as the director of the Smithsonian Institution’s Ocean Portal. Taking on the movement-level lens that Upwell champions, she shares stories from organizations and individuals near and far, whether or not they have any connection to the Smithsonian. If you have a story you want to tell, send it to her.

Upwell’s philosophy.

But what is “success”? Nancy’s project begged the question, and we acknowledged that what one person might call a resounding success, another person might describe as a step forward, or an experiment, or slight progress. Our lexicon, just like our ocean, is fraught with ambiguity.

In addition, we all acknowledged that although we agreed we needed to be better about communicating positivity, stories of success and pathways to action, that directive in no way precluded our responsibility to tell the story about the damage we’re doing. We must develop a comfort with ambiguity, maybe even a taste for complexity, in order to be able to communicate for change.

Coming out of the meeting, we debated for weeks about what word or phrase could encapsulate our shared effort. We settled on #OceanOptimism, and we tested the phrase out on World Oceans Day yesterday. Who knows how far it will go from here, but even if it just makes a little ripple within the network of environmental communicators, we will have made a difference.

I’ve been trying to put what we learned into practice in my campaigning efforts at Upwell since returning home to San Francisco. A couple weeks back, we were about to share a story about the challenges the global fishing industry is facing due to climate change, when I leaned back in my chair. I asked myself, “how can we tell this story in a way that will uplift, rather than depress?” And, after some brainstorming with my Tide Report collaborator, the inimitable Southern Fried Scientist, Andrew David Thaler, we settled on beer.

The Circumnavigating Hope group celebrates #OceanOptimism, and looks ridiculous while we’re at it.

Do you agree we need more #oceanoptimism? Hit the Recommend button below, and share with your friends. Listen to the hashtag for great stories of ocean progress.