Engaging the Public in Protecting Our Blue Planet

William Spitzer

William Spitzer is being honored as a Next Generation of Conservation Leaders Champion of Change.

Recently I watched a documentary on the Apollo 8 mission. The astronauts talked about how it felt to orbit the earth, and see the Earth for the first time as a blue planet  because that is what Earth is. I was very moved to hear these hardboiled pilots and engineers in tears talking about how beautiful the earth looked, and how they missed it when they headed off toward the moon. When you step back and look at the big picture, you realize that it’s the only Earth we’ve got and we need to take good care of it.

How do we help more people see the connections between themselves and the planet we need to protect? At the New England Aquarium we have been working on how to do this, using the power of aquariums, zoos, and nature centers across the country to inspire, educate, and engage the public. We need to use the emotional power of immersive experiences with nature. We need to translate science so that is not only understandable, but also meaningful and actionable. We need to build on what we know about how people communicate and behave, and on what they already know and value.

For example, we need to make effective use of metaphors to explain the science that links causes, impacts, and solutions. Scientists often talk about climate change in terms of the “greenhouse effect”  but most people don’t understand how greenhouses work. Instead, we talk about how burning fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide that forms a heat trapping blanket around the Earth. People intuitively understand that too much blanket makes things too hot. By changing our choice of words, we can help people see what is needed to solve the problem.

There used to be a focus on finding the little things we can do to make a difference. But given the scope of the problems we face, we need to do big things and make a big difference. It’s about acting as a community, realizing our potential as citizens not just consumers. For example, in Boston we have made great improvements in public transportation, a new greenway, bike sharing, bike lanes, ferries and water taxis, all of which help to create a greener and more livable city.

We need to shift the conversation from “doom and gloom” to “hope, innovation, and change.” Studies show that environmental issues can create stress, especially for environmentalists. We have been working to create tools and training to help environmental educators relieve this stress, develop a sense of self-efficacy, and radiate a newfound sense of hopefulness to those around them. It’s like learning to speak a new language, combining the cognitive learning with emotional and social support. When we learn a new language we not only need to learn the verbs and syntax but we need to practice it with and get encouragement from others.

We are working with adult and youth staff from aquariums, zoos, parks, and nature centers from around the country, along with climate scientists and cognitive/social science experts, to create collaborative learning groups that work together for about 100 hours over 6 months. We are building a national learning and support network that will help to transform the culture of communication at more than 150 informal science education centers over the next several years. We believe that we can train enough voices in proven communication techniques to change the national discourse around climate change to be productive, creative and solutions focused.

William Spitzer is Vice President for Programs, Exhibits, and Planning at the New England Aquarium in Boston, Massachusetts. He is Principal Investigator of the NSF-funded National Network for Ocean and Climate Change Interpretation, and the NOAA-funded Visualizing Change projects.p.

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