Breaking news! Conservation practice is actually positive (and so are conservationists)

By Stephanie Brittain

Conservationists are increasingly getting a bad reputation as moaners and pessimists. While this may not sound like important news, a less than flattering article by Mongabay argues that an increasingly bleak tone from conservationists could pose a real problem for conservation by diminishing the recruits of future scientists to the field and disregarding the many positive stories that are occurring daily.

Not another miserable headline

Munduruku people from the Amazon protest against dam construction. Photo: Lunae Parracho/Reuters
Munduruku people successfully protest against dam construction in the Amazon. Photo: Lunae Parracho/Reuters

Unfortunately, there appears to be a relentless outpouring of bad news regarding the natural world and the impact we have on it. The 10th ‘state of the planet’ report revealed that wildlife populations worldwide have declined by 52% since 1970. Other news stories report that species are going extinct, habitats are being degraded and, with all this, traditional ecological knowledge is being lost forever. At times, the situation can appear hopeless.

It’s important to acknowledge that yes, we do live in worrying times. We cannot and must not ignore the bad news and it’s only natural that conservationists want to communicate the plight of the endangered species or habitats they are working hard to protect. But, is a growing focus on the scary stuff the best way of communicating and engaging people to take action? Well, it turns out that perhaps not. In fact, this approach could be damaging conservation efforts.

Focussing on bad news tends to overshadow the excellent work that helps make our world a little bit better. For example, with news of species and habitat extinction comes restoration and reintroduction, an increasing momentum and capacity for people to take an active role in the protection of their environment and, with that, their culture and traditional knowledge. Without sharing these positive stories, successes cannot be learnt from and replicated.

 

Conservation should make people happy

An ecologist dresses as a whooping crane as part of a reintroduction programme. Getty Images
An ecologist dresses as a whooping crane as part of a reintroduction programme. Photo: Getty Images

It is more important now than ever that we successfully engage with the wider public, but constant pessimism may be causing people to tune out from the key messages we are trying to promote. Evidence has long suggested that people do not respond well to negative news; our brains are wired to try harder only when we believe our efforts can make an actual difference. Finger (1991) found that of three strategies (scare tactics, informational and experimental) to transmit ecological knowledge, scare tactics were the least effective.  Adults receiving this were least likely to retain learned principles and turn these into positive environmental behaviours.  With that in mind, where does that leave the field of conservation?

In response to the need to better communicate success in conservation, we set up The Conservation Blog in 2015. Through our blog and our Twitter page, we discuss conservation issues and try to share and promote the fantastic work that is taking place globally, in a positive and informative way. Positive and informative, because we are not here to greenwash or ignore the challenges we face. We want to convince the general public, policy makers and governments, that all is not lost and what better way to do this than by showing off the incredible achievements made so far. By promoting positive solutions to the ongoing conservation problems, we can show that it’s not all bad news!

Time for some good news!

The need to be more optimistic really isn’t a new idea, but interestingly the momentum for optimism in conservation is growing fast! So, we want to share with you some of the excellent blogs, websites and resources that you can follow and share, to learn from and take part in the optimism movement.

  1. @ConservOptimism is a joint initiative of ‪@ICCS_updates & ‪@OfficialZSL that shares positive stories coming out of ‪#conservation. The #ConservationOptimism hashtag is growing fast, keep an eye on it for more exciting news.
  2. @SeaCitizens – are the people behind the hugely successful #OceanOptimism hashtag (for more info on its success, read the ‘#optimism in conservation conversations’ blog Harriet Ibbett, ICCS).
  3. @Cons_Success is run by former conservation students and brings important ‪#conservation ‪#success stories to social media
  4. @James_Borrell’s excellent TEDx talk Is there hope for conservation optimism? will leave you feeling motivated!
  5. positivenews.co.uk is a beautifully designed ‘constructive journalism’ site dedicated to (yes, you’ve guessed it) positive news. They have a separate section just for environment to perk you up in the morning.
  6. @ConservationWin is a relatively new twitter account that ‘tweets conservation success stories…because we talk too much about the problems’. Give them a follow.
  7. WWF are pretty good at promoting their conservation successes via their dedicated Conservation Success Stories A page like this is a great way to see the impact their campaigns have, something we can learn from.
  8. Closer to home, The National Trust have a nature and wildlife success stories page that’s perfect for sharing the local conservation efforts that sometimes get overlooked.

Conservation optimism is more important now than ever before. You can help by keeping an eye on these excellent accounts and blogs, sharing the positive news and using the #ConservationOptimism or other hashtags to get the message out far and wide. This is not a losing battle, far from it. Let’s stay optimistic!

Think we have missed other positive or optimistic news sources related to conservation? Get in contact and we will do our best to share them too.

 

Reference

Finger, M. 1991. Environmental adult learning in Switzerland. Occasional papers, series 2. Center for Adult Education, Columbia University Teachers College, New York.

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