How do we talk about biodiversity issues in a way that resonates with people? Ben Connor explores new research that considers how we can use the stories about people and nature that already exist within our culture.
The alarming rate and scale of biodiversity loss is no secret — or it least it shouldn’t be. Yet it sometimes feels that no matter how hard we try to explain, repackage, or illuminate the fact that the variety of life on earth is in dramatic decline, the message just doesn’t seem to stick.
Conservation organizations and environmental communicators are starting to recognize that simply turning up the volume isn’t enough. We need to think carefully about how we frame these issues so that the problem resonates with people and makes sense in the context of their everyday lives.
Engaging People in Biodiversity Issues is a new online resource produced by Communicate that offers a starting point for this re-framing task. It draws upon qualitative audience research commissioned by the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and conducted by Simon Christmas Ltd.
The study identified four big stories about nature and people that already circulate in our culture; further, it found that these stories provide a context within which any successful framing of biodiversity issues must work. The four stories can be listed under the following categories:
nature finds a way, nature can’t keep up, humanity finds a way and humanity can’t keep up.
Stories about Nature
The two stories about nature appear contradictory, but really work on different timescales. People are astonished by nature’s incredibly capacity to grow, regenerate and recover; they know that in the long-run, nature finds a way. Yet on a human timescale, they also recognize the unavoidable impact — both positive and negative — of people on nature. Fail to strike the right balance, as we are doing now, and nature can’t keep up.
The concept of biodiversity does resonate with these stories about nature, but only partially. Intellectually, people grasp the idea that the variety of life on earth is a variable that goes up and down, but they do not experience it on an everyday basis, ie., on a human timescale. Thus we fall back on the first story — nature will find a way, and this story sends the message “so what is there to worry about?”
A more successful framing of biodiversity issues needs to resonate with both of these stories, tapping into the capacity of nature to astonish with its regenerative ability, but also sticking to the human timeframe at which we recognize our impact on nature.
When we celebrate the positive effects that human actions can have, and that this behavior is crucial to ensure a better balance between negative and positive impacts, is vital to motivate people to take action.
Stories about People
The research also identified two big stories about people. In our daily lives, it can be difficult to see how dependent we are on natural processes; most human spaces seem to be based around keeping nature out. It is easy to assume that regardless of the damage we do to our environment, humanity finds a way.
To counter this story, rather than simply telling people that nature matters, or how much it is worth, our framing of biodiversity needs to demonstrate to people how nature works for us.
However, in our rapidly changing and increasingly complex world, people also worry that humanity can’t keep up. In this story, natural spaces, with their slower pace and simpler structures, offer a place to reconnect and take respite from the stresses of the modern world.
Working with the stories about nature and people that already exist within our culture gives us five principles around which a successful framing of biodiversity issues can be constructed. These five principles — resonate, astonish, motivate, demonstrate and reconnect — are not a complete answer, but a starting point. Explore the resource, try them out, and let us know what you think as we develop them further.
The Engaging People in Biodiversity Issues website was produced by Bristol Natural History Consortium as a project of Communicate, the UK’s leading conference for environmental communicators, in conjunction with Defra’s People Engagement Group and Simon Christmas Ltd.
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