Communicating environmental realities: framing and fiction

Aug 03 2010

ResearchBlogging.orgI finally found the time yesterday evening to read through a few of the papers from the latest Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, which is focused on science/environmental communication this time around. The majority of the articles are driven by Nisbet's ideas about framing in general, but I don't really want to dive back into that mire of rhetoric, at least on a broadside.

I'll start out by saying that I do agree to some extent that the idea of stewardship is a good one in that it has been adopted by folks with very different worldviews. I think overall Wilson's The Creation took a good step of putting aside some of the more tedious ideological blockers between materialism and spiritualism in regard to feeling a connection to nature in any affectionate sense compelling enough to engender stewardship. Since it was published (and I'm sure before then) much work has been done to piece together a much more diverse, welcoming environmental movement.

But that doesn't wipe away the underlying conflict and that acknowledging and living with that conflict - in spite of it perhaps - is a part of living in a pluralistic society. It's difficult for me to align with this idea that motivators and activism needs to be a consolidated effort, a seamless marketing campaign that follows a very particular strategy. There's no doubt that the internet has added a vast dimension to media and that, if anything, there is more static: fact and opinion diffuse. It'll be quite a few more years before we really have a decent grasp on where we're going with the technology we have and how that technology is used to communicate. The assumption that because certain methods seem to be working now - particularly the strict adherence to talking points sans discussion - does not mean they'll be effective in the future.

What I call consolidation and seamless marketing is called a multi-disciplinary approach to outreach in this paper (I'm paraphrasing). Take a look at the graphic. It's pretty self-explanatory.

Seems straightforward enough. The trick is to hope that these "cultures" are indeed disparate currently and as ideally granular as the diagram presents.

Ideas don't work this way. The overlap presented in (b) already exists; it's not regimented in ineffectual little spheres. These disciplines, or areas of thought dovetail and repel in different ways, it's not as simple as tossing up a series of .ppt circles in harmony and hoping for the best. Looks good on a billboard, but in practice it's just about useless.

When it comes to trying to implement the "creative arts" for activism, I always have a hard time finding justification for that. It's not some kind of purist notion that using fiction or art as an ideological Trojan horse is a cardinal sin; that would be inconsistent on my part. Most of the novels I've read and enjoyed in my life have a very clear message, some of which are allegorical. The problem is when you're talking about folks like Orwell or even Rand, there was a skill applied that made the work a masterpiece in its own right, even stripped of its sociopolitcal metaphors. That's hard to replicate, creating a purposed work that doesn't come off like propaganda. I think that's the reason why educational games and stories don't work. There needs to be a certain level of honesty - of purity even - or it comes off transparently activist. For some, that's not really an issue. For me, it speaks volumes. Avatar was successful because it was a technological marvel; the story was horribly skewed and shallow and scoffed at by folks across the political spectrum. It's hard to take the message seriously.

There's an inherent power in fantasy already to instill that feeling of environmental stewardship in us. When I was 11, I read Lord of the Rings for the first time at my parent's house in the Appalachians. They were my mother's copies of the books, sitting on top of the stack of Golden Books. I didn't do much else for that week or so but read and spend time outside mowing the lawn. LotR is about the fading magic of the world, a lament of how much influence we have and an acknowledgement of our power as a species. But Tolkien did such a fantastic job of describing and breathing life into the natural landscapes of Middle Earth that it contextualized nature to a degree that I still appreciate. His love of nature through anthropomorphizing trees and animals translated directly into my understanding and appreciation of nature. I think to some degree Twilight does the same for the Pacific forests. Meyer has an obvious love for the mystery of nature around her where she shrouds her totems of respect - the characters of her stories.

I'm not being dismissive. If it sounds that way, then it's a clarity issue on my end. Overall I agree; emphasis needs to be better distributed and environmental organizations, scientists and activists need to find ways to work together. I'm glad the ESA made this a priority for publication. There's some great ideas in there. I particularly like Diane McKnight's piece on children's literature and "ecophobia", warning against being overly focused on the negative aspects, i.e. the degradation of the environment via human influences.

The whole issue is worth a read, even if the framing issue gets your blood boiling.

Groffman, P., Stylinski, C., Nisbet, M., Duarte, C., Jordan, R., Burgin, A., Previtali, M., & Coloso, J. (2010). Restarting the conversation: challenges at the interface between ecology and society Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 8 (6), 284-291 DOI: 10.1890/090160

Nisbet, M., Hixon, M., Moore, K., & Nelson, M. (2010). Four cultures: new synergies for engaging society on climate change Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 8 (6), 329-331 DOI: 10.1890/1540-9295-8.6.329

McKnight, D. (2010). Overcoming “ecophobia”: fostering environmental empathy through narrative in children's science literature Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 8 (6) DOI: 10.1890/100041

2 responses so far

  • Christina Pikas says:

    The one about children's literature would be useful for school and public librarians to read. I was in a qualitative research class with communications PhD students - some of whom studied fear appeals, persuasion, and embarrassment. It really opened my eyes because I had not noticed what rhetoric was being used.

    • jeremy says:

      I just don't see how instilling fear or shame can be viewed as a good strategy to reach kids. It's amazing that children's lit with that kind of theme is published in any discipline.

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