Improving the conservation narrative: What we say vs. what the public hears

“Where does all the weight in this log come from?” I ask, struggling to lift the biggest tree log I can wrestle in front of a crowd at a local civic club in rural Florida. “Water! Rain! Nutrients! Soil! Fertilizer! Roots!” they shout, fully engaging. I wait for the correct answer. 

“Anyone remember photosynthesis?” The crowd nods, although it’s been decades since high school biology. “So what happens during photosynthesis?” 

“Sun? Sunlight? Heat? Leaves? Rain?” they respond. Nothing more. So we review photosynthesis: energy from sunlight plus CO2 from air, taken in through leaves, builds the carbohydrates that grow the plant. In short, more than half the weight of a fresh log is carbon—carbon from the air.   

Mass-of-air into mass-of-log is hard to fathom, but the reverse is easier to grasp.  

“What happens when the log burns?” I ask.  “Smoke. Flames. Ash,” they answer, and then eureka! “The mass goes back into hot air.” “Yes, I reply enthusiastically, “carbon goes up in smoke, particles, and mostly as CO2, with a little ash and charcoal left behind. The heat and firelight are like the log releasing the sun’s energy.”

Together we draw the carbon cycle on a flip chart. Plants capturing carbon. Carbon in the soil. Someone adds carbon emitted from fires or burning gasoline. As they walk out, someone says, “wait till I ask so-and-so about that log.”  I smile.  

If you can learn something this basic, will you be more willing to accept as true the rest of the carbon cycle?  How do you give the facts a fighting chance?

Conservationists desperately need to engage minds that are misinformed, uneducated, or simply disinterested.  Here are 10 tips to improve messaging—information that I would have like to have had 30 years ago.  

  1. Provoke Emotion. Engage with the heart, not the head.  If you read Randy Olson’s Don’t Be Such a Scientist you’ll probably think, like me, that you already knew about emotional engagement, but ask yourself “Do I really do this?” Photo after beautiful photo of stunning landscapes and enthralling animals are appealing, however, for greater effect, combine with images that illustrate conservation threats and solutions. Nowadays I employ scenes such as bulldozers clearing the land, “Then and Now” views, or trap-camera videos of animals using road underpasses.

  2. Provoke Thought and Inquiry.  Lecturing via facts sadly increases resistance to changing the minds of people holding fixed value-based beliefs. Instead, provoke thought and inquiry as advocated in the wonderful guidelines laid out by Freeman Tilden, founding father of interpretation for the National Park Service. Inquiry is a mental Trojan horse, a powerful wedge into the mind. Those who evaluate facts will be lifelong conservationists. 

  3. Speak in Anecdotes. Share Epic Narratives. Stories that are personal or anecdotal are more memorable than logical arguments. For example, academics have published many scientific papers about the need for wildlife corridors throughout Florida, but it took four charismatic explorers on a widely-publicized expedition, following in the footsteps of bears and panthers along a 1,000-mile wildlife corridor across the state, for the idea to take fire in the public mind. I share the Florida Wildlife Corridor as a powerful epic narrative. 

  4. Know Your Audience. Find Common Ground. Working effectively in place-based conservation means engaging multiple constituencies. One challenge is to seek common ground that connects a range from liberal to conservative values. Another to use varied media to reach disparate audiences. I try to convey consistent information to everyone; a local Cattlemen’s Association, an Audubon Chapter, or a college class. 

  5. Speak with Other Voices. Use Other Messengers. Nothing seems more powerful and credible than speaking alongside spokespersons from other groups, all conveying common messages. Credibility in my community comes from aligning with others such as the commander of the local military base, a well-known farmer, or a trusted community leader. 

  6. Translate Locally. Think Globally. Local examples that audiences relate to are the starting point from which to scale-up to global drivers. The impact of a local invasive species allows me to transition to the global stage of wildlife trade, emerging diseases, or vulnerability to climate change. I avoid being a habitat bigot. Try, instead, to leverage a lowly but beloved neighborhood patch of nature to link to the greater watershed.  Local pieces assemble a picture of the global conservation jigsaw puzzle. 

  7. Address Other Perspectives. Aldo Leopold wrote, “It of course goes without saying that economic feasibility limits the tether of what can or cannot be done for land. It always has and it always will.” At least acknowledge other perspectives, including socio-economic.  My job includes oversight of Archbold’s 3,000-head cattle ranch; for me there has been no greater dose of reality or greater gain in credibility than to foster conservation on a ranch that has to break-even financially.   

  8. Engage Artists and Writers. Scientist-artist alliances can make visible and important the abstract and cloaked. I worked recently with student artist Allen McPherson who created a “story map” of central Florida. His paintings bring conservation to life, not unlike the fictional voyages portrayed on endpapers of books like The Hobbit.  Much more attention-grabbing than a community planner’s GIS map. 

  9. Don’t Create Paroxysms of Despair. The challenges we face are daunting; the solutions are difficult. But we don’t want audiences to fear that all hope is lost. The three essentials of conservation messaging are “increasing knowledge, changing attitudes, and affecting behavior.” Don’t forget behavior! I refer to practical solutions, such as Archbold’s Learning Center, an inspiring green building, to help people change their lives in essential and reinforcing ways. 

  10. Marketing to People Who Don’t Seem to Care About Nature? Of course if someone really didn’t get the nature gene, one makes the ecosystem services argument─clean air, water, etc. But philosopher Alain de Botton gave me more insight.  It’s okay to market nature; just like perfume, or clothing, or choosing a bank.  de Botton suggests promoting social good using the tenants of Epicurus’ path to happiness: "friends, freedom, and thought (an analyzed life)". Portray nature with attractive and diverse people looking happy or serene in beautiful surroundings. Evoke the response, if I engage in nature and conservation, my children, my friends, and I will look and feel as good as this. It’s reasonable to use human psychology to change attitudes. I scour family photos and social media selfies to convey nature and conservation activities as settings for adults and children to experience fun, friendship, the freedom to roam, to breathe fresh air, and for quiet contemplation. 

Professionals in large conservation organizations already know all this. But if you are struggling on the frontlines of conservation, please stay faithful to reliable repositories of knowledge, but also try some of these tips, and share with colleagues if they make a difference. 


Dr. Hilary Swain is Executive Director of Archbold Biological Station, a non-profit whose mission is to generate and share the scientific knowledge needed to protect the life, lands, and waters of Florida.  She oversees more than 50 scientists, conservationists, and educators, and land management of 20,000-acres including a globally imperiled nature preserve and a 3,000-head cattle ranch. Among many recognitions. She is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and was named Florida’s Conservationist of the Year in 2013.

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