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Communicating environmental info and ideas is changing

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Communicating important ideas is always a challenge... ask any parent or young lover or even politician or teacher.

I'm finding that communicating "green and sustainable" ideas has gone through stages both from my point of view, and the people I communicate with. I've always lived close to nature and natural systems, and I understand environmental concepts first through the experience of digging my toes in soft garden soil, or cooing to a nesting mourning dove in an apple tree, or watching muskrats swim in a pond. It all flows together and everything is connected.

Professional environmental communications

But what I found as a professional communicator -- writer, editor, illustrator, designer, photographer, etc -- is that most of the people I communicate with never had those kinds of experiences and see nature and natural systems from inside their four walls - see birds as dirtying their car with poop, see vegetables and fruits in the grocery store as uniform sizes and with stickers on them. And see only human systems as being "connected" -- nature is foreign and difficult, if not a burden, to understand.

So I've learned to adapt. Pretty pictures help. Experience with a feather or a squirrel or sand on the beach -- they all help bring attention to the everyday details of natural systems. And then it is my job to show them, not tell them, how that squirrel and feather and sand are connected. And why it matters to them as they sit behind a desk or travel faster than most birds.

Why metrics and measurements aren't enough. Why experience with our natural heritage is as valuable as silicon or plastic or water out of a faucet. And how all THOSE items fit together in a sustainable community. And in each decision between a "greener" product and even not using that product at all! How walking is a form of transportation. And buying less but better is a viable green marketing strategy.

Attributes of possible communications strategies...

  • Guided discovery
  • Provocation
  • Appreciation
  • Understanding
  • Making Connections
  • Immersion
  • Feelings
  • Sensory experience
  • Wonder, curiosity
I can just imagine that E.O. Wilson, one of the most admired American biologists, would love this approach to ecological and scientific communications!

Scientific communications

And on the other side of the environmental communications gulf there are the scientists and technologists in the environmental field. They spend weekends in the wilderness. But they spend their days in a computer screen and meetings that are contentious, not colonizing. They are educated and told to compete for grant monies, for recognition and advancement. And the public just gets in the way of that mission.

So you can imagine how delighted I was to read about the following "Eureka moment".

"The most exciting thing for me about this conference was our work with communication and public relations specialists that made me realize that our entire mode of interacting with the public needs to be revisited. We need to think less about just providing information to fill perceived knowledge deficits and to think more about engaging with the public using frameworks that are more relevant to their knowledge and values." said Matthew C. Nisbet in "Ecologist Says Scientists Need to Re-Evaluate Approach to Communication".

His key points included:

First, recognize that the public holds scientists in very high regard.

Second, while the public are keen to listen to us, they will only do so if we think more about our audiences.

"People are really interested in improving the flow of information from science to society and are excited about the ideas in these papers. Some scientists are uncomfortable with the 'public engagement' and 'framing' ideas for science communication. Likely they are concerned that the content of their science will be diluted or misinterpreted if we focus less on the message and more on the medium," continued Nisbet.

I can't keep the niggling thoughts damped down in my mind -- aren't scientists human? Don't they have children and value explaining science to children, or their mother, or neighbor? Must everything be for PHDs and technicians to have authenticity?

The focus is not lessened, any more than making jelly out of blackberries lessens the flavor and value of the berries. It's different and more palatable by SOME people. The processed idea can become a story, an experience, and mesmerize the newly informed mind for a lifetime. How is that diluted or misinterpreted?

Citizen science and citizen journalism collide

Citizen journalism and citizen science are merging on the Internet. Non-scientists are finding their scientific voice. They dare to tackle tough subjects like nuclear power, photovoltaics, alternative energy and yes, green chemistry. We, us audacious citizen science journalists -- we dare to learn and explore and share our human views of what was previously the hallowed halls of cloistered mon... I mean scientists. :-) Yes, we even dare to bring a bit of humor into the storytelling and discussions.

But why are scientists reluctant, really? My interviews and discussions with scientists finds that they are more concerned about their career advancement than they are with getting information (yes, accurate information) out to the public and the policy makers who are passing laws and regulations that affect ALL of us.

And that's not a good thing.

It's not a good thing for a scientist to be afraid, yes, I said "afraid" to talk to me as a journalist. I don't bite. I do ask tough questions, and I do expect truthfulness and not self-promotional or pontificating about detailed information far beyond the scope of the discussion. And I don't expect the expert to hold back the core of their content because they want to sell that information in consulting contracts. Many of these scientists' paychecks are paid with public dollars -- taxpayer dollars, and we, the taxpayers deserve the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

The scientific community's political realities

"I think that the next step is to come up with criteria for evaluating and giving credit for effective science communication. If we want scientists to engage with society, the institutions that they work for have got to give them credit for it. And the only way to get these institutions to give them credit is to come up with ways to evaluate the quality of their efforts," explained Nisbet.

I don't understand the complexities of academia, I acknowledge that. But I do think that communicating with your community outside your office is a citizen's duty. And that job related "credit" is an internal matter, not a prime consideration when the planet itself is suffering from such massive abuse that we need every hand on deck. Including scientists. Especially scientists. And technologists. And educated communicators. And practical DIY enthusiasts. And concerned parents.

And you and me.

Where do we go from here? Interpretation.

There is one group of natural science communicators who have been exploring this connection between science and the great unwashed masses for decades... they are in our national parks, state parks, and nature interpretation centers.

"Nature interpretation" has a lot of experience turning science into experiential learning. And it is engaging because it is communications designed for voluntary learning. People don't HAVE to attend a nature walk or a tour of a natural science museum. They choose to, and they'll leave if it gets boring or flies over their heads.

The knowledge is here. There's even a national association to teach, train and credential nature interpreters. They have textbooks to teach us how to communicate in print, with signage, with walking tours, with experiential event, and with engaging, informative, and life-changing information. Not dumbed-down, but made personal by starting with what matters to the individual -- their daily life, their family, and their favorite plants and animals in the world in which they live, work and play.

National Association for Interpretation -- scientists can learn more at their website. Just don't assume that they will "dumb down the communications theory for YOU..." they're far to practical to do that! You can expect to be treated with respect, enthusiasm and connected with information that will help you understand the world of amazing communications awaiting you!

You can learn more about -- and adapt these methods -- from the fascinating historical roots of nature interpretation that were nurtured by:

  • Freeman Tilden who developed 6 principals for nature interpretation
  • Steve Van Matre, is the founder of the Earth Education movement and chair of the Institute for Earth Education
  • Joseph Cornell with his campaign of Sharing Nature with Children

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