Pessimism in Conservation Science

I was surprised to hear that ¾ of abstracts submitted to the Ecological society of Australia conference #esa14 this year were pessimistic. Steve Morton pointed out that there was a strong tendency in our field to use emotively pessimistic language to communicate our science. And it is true. Often neutral results are portrayed in a negative light. An example from my own research might be: “The bar-tailed godwit (BTG) population of Moreton Bay has remained stable over the last 20 years, however, in the face of accelerating intertidal loss is the Yellow Sea, we expect numbers to decline”. Why is this? You’d think this was positive message: that despite all this habitat loss, BTG numbers have remained stable?

There seems to be a false sense that by telling a depressing story, we will shock the world into action. However, ecological pessimism is more likely to lead to a general feeling of hopelessness; that nothing can be done to save our wildlife; that nothing can be done to reverse climate change.

Consider the below image:


There is no argument looking at this picture that we need to stop trashing the planet. However the subliminal message sent to the reader is that if you stop trashing the planet, you are violating a social norm, going against the grain so to speak. Research by Winnifred Lewis from the university of Queensland has shown exactly this, and that shockingly, test subjects were actually less likely to recycle after seeing this type of poster.

It is therefore possible to get perverse outcomes from badly formulated messages. By spreading our pessimism, we are much more likely to make others feel that the situation is doomed and that they might as well just stop making any effort. Because hey ho, climate change is going to happen anyway right? Or is it?

Well yes, it is. But the important point we should all be stressing is that that WE are actually causing climate change, and that WE are therefore the key to solving the problem. At the end of the day, 97% of published scientific research supports anthropogenic climate change. Who can argue with that? Last week tonight illustrated this point brilliantly. In Australia for example, the carbon tax did work. Simple measures such as eating less red meat, using public transport and recycling are all completely feasible, and can make a difference. I hate to quote Tesco, but “Every little helps”.

So be contagiously optimistic and it might just help. Instead of telling people to recycle, tell them how awesome you think recycling is. Tell them about your compost and your worm farm, about how much healthier you feel after buying a bike, about how you have to take the bin out less often since you stopped buying food with so much packaging.

Like I said, be contagiously optimistic and it might just help.


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