Big wads of plastic in the ocean that stretch for miles and disintegrating polar ice caps are the kind of news stories that tend to make us feel hopeless regarding conservation efforts. Why bother to change our light bulbs to compact fluorescents if our planet’s imminent demise is a speeding train that can’t be stopped?
The reason we have these feelings is probably the work of environmentalists themselves. They’re sending the wrong messages, if you ascribe to the new field of neuro-conservation.
Instead of focusing the spotlight on results of scientific studies that prove our planet is rapidly warming, or on statistics about alarming species extinction rates, they should be talking about how an ocean view will make us feel happy or standing among trees will arouse our feelings of peacefulness.
After all, selling us emotions is what marketing professionals have been doing for decades. They know that we don’t just buy a car; we buy how that car makes us feel — wealthier, greener or more in control. Using the tenets of neuro-conservation may just be the boost that environmentalists need to gain support for their causes in a world that’s overrun with more scientific data than we know what to do with — or pay attention to.
Hooked on a feeling
When it comes to purchasing a product, selecting a service provider or supporting a political candidate, people make decisions based on emotions. Coca-Cola uses happiness to sell beverages and Travelers Insurance uses love (and cute dogs) to sell insurance. But conservationists tend to present economics, facts and figures. And it’s not working.
Take, for instance, the issue of global warming. A recent survey conducted by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication asked U.S. adults ages eighteen and older about the causes, impacts and potential solutions related to global warming and how our climate system works. Just 8 percent had enough knowledge to earn a grade of A or B on the set of questions. And while 63 percent believe that global warming is real and happening, 49 percent incorrectly think that the space program contributes to it, 47 percent erroneously say that fossil fuels are the fossilized remains of dinosaurs, and 42 percent are convinced that since scientists can’t predict the weather more than a few days in advance, they can’t possibly foretell the climate of the future.
This, after environmentalists have been calling the public’s attention to the dangers of climate change — with reams of statistics and reports — for decades. Neuro-conservationists believe environmentalists need to sell emotions, much as product marketers do.
If stress causes disease, for example, and disease reduces well-being, a reduction of stress will increase wellness. And if sitting on the beach and looking at the ocean reduces stress (which we know it does), then sitting on the beach should be regarded as a public health tool — and a less expensive one than prescription drugs. It follows, then, that instead of showing piles of junk in our oceans or dead fish, the environmentalists’ message should depict happy and stress-free people enjoying a clean beach. That, in turn, will lead to a more integrated, enlightened public policy and conversation about the environment, and access to coasts would be considered as city planning is carried out.
An article published in ScienceDaily, titled “The Healing Effects of Forests,” reported on a study conducted in Finland that found that after stressful or concentration-demanding situations, people recover faster and better in natural, green settings — such as forests — than in urban settings. Feelings of depression, anger and aggressiveness were lessened, and there was an increase in a feeling of overall happiness. Even ADHD symptoms in children were reduced.
Given the psychological research that confirms that direct contact with nature leads to increased mental health and psychological development, some people, such as Richard Louv, author of the book Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, have stated that “land conservation can now be viewed as a public health strategy.”
The eco-community, however, is not taking advantage of such emotional selling points. Dr. Kelly McGonigal, author of the book The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It, notes that pictures are more powerful than words, but cautions that environmentalists who show the horrific scope of a problem with a devastating photo often end up alienating the very people they wish to inspire. It’s what Dr. McGonigal refers to as a “compassion collapse,” in which people wind up feeling powerless and then disengage from the issue.
After all, the idea that the ocean provides psychological benefits seems well known by marketers and realtors; otherwise, why would we spend our vacations by the sea or pay a higher premium for a home with an ocean view? But if we love the ocean so much, why then are so many of us now disconnected from it, and why do so many of our actions damage it?
Applying neuro-conservation methods to conservation messages offers great hope for motivating people to care about and act upon environmental issues. Positive emotions trump fear any day, and feel-good promises top lengthy and rational statistics and arguments. Why not harness those emotional rushes for the good of the planet?
What do you think? Do environmentalists need to change their media messages? Because I think a commercial starring Brad Pitt staring out to sea with a smile on his face is in order…
Feature photo: Direct contact with nature leads to increased mental health. Land conservation should be viewed as a public health strategy. ©John T. Andrews
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