Coming off the heels of the Hawai‘i Conservation Conference, I am left with mixed emotions. On the one hand, I was even more devastated than usual by the evidence experts laid bare about the seemingly insurmountable problems facing our natural world, our oceans in particular. On the other hand, I encountered some of the most passionate, optimistic and – this is what makes all the difference – radical thinkers, that I slowly began to feel a small stirring of hope. But still, I feel that it is going to take more than that to help lift me out of my state-of-the-environment depression. I have become quite jaded over the years, and I have been all too aware that I was becoming frighteningly despondent, nearly giving in and giving up. Just like much of the world.
I remember a very close friend of mine saying, after an awareness campaign on some fish stock or other that was depleted and that we should avoid purchasing, to hell with it – she was going to eat whatever she wanted because if she didn’t, somebody else will, so what difference could she possibly make? This was nearly 20 years ago. I was frankly shocked at her fatalist attitude, especially coming from someone who loved nature like I knew she did. It certainly didn’t suit her, and I didn't feel it was right to absolve oneself of the responsibility of trying. Indeed, I remember feeling that it was exactly that kind of thinking that allowed the powers that be to drive the world to destruction.
But then, perhaps she was ahead of her time. It just took me longer to get there. Over the years, I became so discouraged through seeing firsthand what was happening to the world’s oceans that I almost joined that mindset. I considered dropping out of the fight many a time, and in recent years have come dangerously close to doing so, but in the end my conscience would always discard such a heinous thought. After all, if I give up, what will I tell my children?
So what is the answer? How do we get back the inspiration to save the world’s oceans? Here’s where I might lose some folks, because I am going to say something you may not like: The solution is not in the science. It’s in the presentation.
Let’s face it, if all it took was scientific facts and real-life examples, then the world would look much different today. When I was in grad school, I knew a biology major who, bless her soul, was naïve enough to say that she wanted to study fisheries because she would use stock assessment facts (she stressed the word “facts”) to convince (she also stressed this word) policymakers to make and enforce regulations. She was so sure of this seemingly rational approach that I had to admire and yet pity her at the same time. Meanwhile, the track I was on was learning the science to back up the tactic that is needed to make the difference: communicating – on multiple levels, with multiple stakeholders, in multiple variations.
My first career was in film production. I worked in this frenetic industry for 12 years before veering off that path to do something for the oceans, which I came to love incidentally from living and scuba diving in South Florida. After graduating with my master’s degree and completing my thesis work in the Philippines, I thought I would go on to become an applied marine scientist – conducting reef and fish surveys, identifying specimens, and crunching data like I did throughout my coursework. But that eluded me. Prospective employers were always drawn to my communications background, seeking something they couldn’t quite articulate but knew was needed to round out their research and scientific discoveries. I was a bit distraught at this, because I wanted to be in the water, diving, doing transects.
I remember talking on the phone with John Parks, a fellow RSMAS alumnus who was then working in DC at the World Resources Institute, who told me not to bemoan my communications background, because the scientific world was just waking up to the fact that they needed people with that expertise more and more. This stuck with me. I spent many years since then working to help organizations improve and create their communications to share their message in meaningful ways, and also in evaluating communications efforts on social and scientific themes.
And here, many years later, sitting at the Hawai‘i Conference Center, I am gratified to first of all see scientists who are much improved communicators but also many more sessions and forums dedicated to communications, and even the strictly scientific presentations acknowledging the need for strategic communications and outreach. I myself conducted a forum on effective messaging for science communications, which I will get into in detail in my next blog.
It’s good to be back.
Toni Parras, Strategic Science Communications Professional
Specializes in helping organizations improve their efforts through strategic communication and evaluation; exploring innovative approaches to creating awareness, influencing behavior and evaluating efforts; and incorporating information design, photography, video and storytelling into marine management, conservation and education efforts.
Disclaimer: the views expressed in this article are those of the author alone, and do not reflect upon any bodies with which she may be associated.