People love the ocean. Science has shown it. But do they value it?

Not enough, ocean advocates would say. Or at the very least, the love we humans have for the oceans is not reflected in our collective behavior and our policies. Otherwise, the oceans would not be in the damaged state we find them today, their fish stocks depleted, coral reefs degraded and waters debased by all manner of garbage and pollutants.

Marine debris washes up on a remote Hawaiian beach. (Credit: Susan White/USFWS)

Marine debris washes up on a remote Hawaiian beach. (Credit: Susan White/USFWS)

In purely monetary terms, economists have estimated the total value of the ecosystem services provided by the oceans at around $24 trillion. If they were a country, the oceans would have the seventh largest economy on the planet, according to Ove Hoegh-Guldberg of the University of Queensland. But this value is declining rapidly as they become more exploited and further polluted. To cite just one statistic, a new report states that marine species have declined by 39% between 1970 and 2010.

How can we communicate the value of the oceans in a way that gets the public and policy-makers to act more responsibly? It’s a puzzle that activists, scientists, journalists and indeed anyone who loves the ocean have been pondering with limited success.

In the future, say some ecologists and social marketing experts, the answer could well be informed by some relatively new scientific disciplines. Emerging fields such as neuroscience, behavioral psychology, even new understandings in evolutionary theory may augment the way we communicate about the oceans. In particular, say some advocates, calls for marine protection need to be more emotionally focused, at least in wealthy societies, and based more on appeals to group identity as the messages are spread to the developing world.

Or perhaps it is technology that will make the difference. Could the advent of social media, or the spread of some next generation tool such as virtual reality change public awareness about the oceans? Then again, the answer could be much simpler, and may lie in better understanding and adopting the science of narrative structure to ocean communications.

To see where we’re going, we first need to see where we’re at. There is significant skepticism about the efficacy of current efforts to communicate about the oceans, which these days tend to combine the dissemination of basic information with some mixture of fear, hope and wonder.

A Growing Sea of Media

While our fascination with the oceans probably goes back to the time humanity’s evolutionary forebears crawled from the sea, most experts you talk to about modern communications usually begin by referring to Jacques Cousteau. One of the pioneers of nature programming on TV, he helped produce more than 120 documentaries about the ocean (and over 50 books), which were a huge influence on those of us who grew up in the 1960s and 70s watching shows such as The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau.

Given how remote and unseen most ocean life is to the average person, these efforts to communicate marine science are even more vital than for other environmental issues. Today, there are more beautifully shot ocean documentaries available than ever, many of them containing striking high-definition footage of the wonders of the deep.

The number of marine parks, aquariums and marine life centers has also steadily grown, offering more opportunities for the public to learn about and explore the oceans and their inhabitants. “It’s so hard to see what’s going on beneath the surface of the ocean. That’s why aquariums play such a powerful role, they have emotional impact on audiences,” says Nancy Baron of COMPASS, which works with scientists to help them communicate. “Places like the Monterey Bay Aquarium have done so much, because people have an emotional experience from what they’re seeing.”

Jellyfish at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. (Credit: fredlet/Flickr)

Jellyfish at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. (Credit: fredlet/Flickr)

Journalism continues to produce some profound reporting that help the public to understand how the oceans are changing. Writers such as Kenneth R. Weiss, Carl Safina, David Helvarg, Paul Greenberg, Charles Clover and most recently Ian Urbina have produced ground-breaking books and series on marine topics.

And scientists such as Sylvia Earle, Jeremy Jackson and Daniel Pauly are also working as communicators to help the public understand these issues. Ben Halpern, a researcher at UC Santa Barbara, has created the Ocean Health Index, an innovative ranking system that Baron believes can help policy-makers by providing a comprehensive assessment of the state of the oceans through a relatively simple framework.

But there is reason to question the effectiveness of many of these approaches. Aquariums, for instance, can be expensive to visit, and marine life centers are now subject to criticism for holding marine mammals (among other species) in captivity. Journalists and scientists remain hugely important in their ability to uncover hidden trends and scandals, and to reach out to audiences beyond those who already care. But their voices are becoming increasingly diluted in the growing sea of media and entertainment options.

And those beautiful documentaries may not be having as much of an impact as we’d like to think on the public. “Jacques Cousteau tried to set a good example for the telling of compelling stories, but when he exited there was no one to pick up the mantle,” argues Randy Olson, a scientist turned film-maker.

Could advances in media technology come to the rescue? Perhaps the most obvious potential lies in the digital media revolution we’re currently witnessing. In particular, social media has greatly decentralized (or “disintermediated”) the way information is spread about the oceans and other current affairs, and has had a major impact on the way the public consumes news, opinion and information.

This has enabled NGOs and scientists to reach out directly to the public, without having to work through professional journalists. And campaigners are entranced by the possibility of having their messages go viral. They point to examples like the “Under the Dome” documentary on air pollution in China which reached hundreds of millions of people (before being shut down by the government), or the recent outcry spurred by the killing of Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe.

But skeptics question whether this may be fool’s gold. “I think much more relevant to Cecil than any­ change of collective conscience is to look at the KONY 2012 event — another example of social media going nuts over having found a clear and pure devil,” says Olson. “It’s much more about the unifying power of hatred than anything so uplifting as protecting nature.”

Equally enticing is the ability to spread information through mobile phones, and what’s more, to collect data. “We have already seen mobile technology play a role in some of our campaigns,” confirms Brooke Sadowsky of the group RARE, which runs social marketing campaigns on environmental themes.
“We can send out reminders about hunting seasons, for instance, or have volunteers carry out reporting activities.”

Local partners of Internews’ Earth Journalism Network[1] (EJN) in Indonesia and the Philippines have used SMS networks to collect data and report on illegal activities, such as encroachment by loggers in the forests of Kalimantan. “Most of our target audience don’t have access to smart phones yet, but they can certainly play a big role in the future,” adds RARE’s Sadowsky. “There are major opportunities to create apps and games that can support the messages and norms we’re trying to spread.”

Landscape of forest in East Kalimantan, Indonesia. (Credit: CIFOR)

Landscape of forest in East Kalimantan, Indonesia. (Credit: CIFOR)

Data journalism is another fast-growing segment of the media world, and has been building on the huge amounts of environmental data available to the public. EJN has again worked with local partners to create a series of GeoJournalism sites that combine interactive maps, visualized data and traditional journalism to shed new light on crucial regions such as the Amazon, the Congo Basin and the Himalayas.

So far, only the Ekuatorial platform in Indonesia has focused on ocean issues, providing maps of marine protected areas, biodiversity zones and close-to-real-time marine traffic. Given how hard it is to get solid information about what’s going on at sea, if journalists or scientists can find ways to display visualized data from satellites, underwater probes and other forms of remote sensing, it has real potential to keep the public and policy-makers updated with crucial information about the oceans.

Virtual Oceans

Perhaps the most enticing media advance on the horizon is virtual reality. Imagine if you could enjoy the experience of diving at a remote, pristine coral reef in the comfort of your living room without the hefty price tag? It could potentially provide access to the wonders of the deep in a way that even IMAX films and aquariums couldn’t match.

Actually, most ocean communicators seem skeptical that advances in media technology could have a significant impact on the public’s relationship with the oceans, or on their support for ocean conservation. Indeed, it could conceivably have the reverse affect if people come to feel it’s no longer as necessary to protect marine sanctuaries once they’re captured in virtual reality. But some are intrigued by the possibilities of this new technology.

“From what I’ve heard, I would think experiencing the oceans in virtual reality would help. It could show a pristine environment and then a damaged one,” suggests John Baker managing director of Wild Aid, which is working to stem the illegal wildlife trade. “Perhaps there could be a virtual aquarium, like a planetarium, that we could show to local communities. Maybe they can put some of that technology into schools.”

A student tries out a virtual reality headset. (Credit: Ms. SmittyB/Flickr)

A student tries out a virtual reality headset. (Credit: Ms. SmittyB/Flickr)

“There’s a chance it could have a popular impact,” adds Baron. “We have to try every avenue. One size does not fit all.” Perhaps it could help address the shifting baselines problem that environmentalists bemoan, in which the public doesn’t realize the natural treasures being lost because they’ve only experienced a diminished world.

“The potential is there with virtual reality,” says ocean ecologist Wallace J Nichols. “But it would be a continuation of the technology we have now. We already have a lot of high-definition, 3D images of nature that most people have never seen. We know a movie is pre-filtered, manufactured. It’s different from something that’s un-scripted. There’s something about the multi-sensory experience that makes memories into nostalgia, that creates memory packed with emotion.

“Movies can do that but it’s rare. There’s always hype that ‘this movie is going to be world-changing’, but then people walk out and it’s relatively quickly forgotten. Rarely do you meet a conservationist who says she or he chose this career because of an IMAX movie. People fall in love with a reality-based experience.

“So virtual reality would be interesting, but not quite awe-inducing, not transformative. Maybe there’s a technological leap that suddenly makes it more impactful. But moving through real space and time and using all your senses still beats that. I’d still prefer to jump into an ocean for 15 seconds than watch a film.”

More Honest, Less Earnest

Olson, the communications critic who is coming out with a new book called Houston, We Have a Narrative: Why Science Needs Story, puts it this way: “New technology is still only about style.  What is needed is more focus on substance — meaning figuring out the narrative dynamics — which means identifying the large scale solutions, then figuring out how to communicate them efficiently in a manner that is not boring or confusing.  Unfortunately the people responsible for this haven’t yet cracked that nut yet.

“If you want to know how bad ocean communication is, just go to any ocean film festival. The films are painfully dull and repetitive. There is a lack of understanding, interest and capability for storytelling, as well as a lack of understanding of entertainment in general.”

Olson argues that there is a similar problem in the communication of ocean science. “Even today it is very hard to get a clear picture of whether world fisheries are collapsing or stable, and of just how dire the picture is for coral reefs. Earlier this year, a paper on ‘ocean calamities’ from Carlos Duarte suggested that some scientists have overstated the problems. It sparked a lot of controversy and indignation, along with a rebuttal led by [NYU environmental studies professor] Jennifer Jacquet. But they hit on some truths. It’s a narrative mess.”

In short, he believes ocean communications needs to be more honest and less earnest. “The best hope is to propagate a wider understanding of the importance of having ‘narrative intuition’,” he claims. “There is a science to narrative. It needs to be brought to bear on ocean conservation issues.”

New York Times DotEarth blogger Andrew Revkin agrees with Olson that the “formula” many conservation groups use in their communications is confusing and even counter-productive. “You can’t say the world is ending and point to simple fixes at the same time,” he contends. “You can say things we care about, like coral reefs, are at risk and there are ways to cut those risks. But how do you engage disengaged audiences on that? What would the perfect film on conservation in the Anthropocene look like?”

Perhaps the best recent example of an effective communications campaign has been the work carried out by Wild Aid in China, which has been widely praised in helping to reduce the consumption of shark fins. The group claims that there has been an “82% decline in sales reported by shark fin vendors in Guangzhou, China and a decrease in prices (47% retail and 57% wholesale) over the past two years… 85% of Chinese consumers surveyed online said they gave up shark fin soup within the past three years, and two-thirds of these respondents cited awareness campaigns as a reason for ending their shark fin consumption.”

Shark fin soup (Credit: Richard Lee/Flickr)

Shark fin soup (Credit: Richard Lee/Flickr)

A government ban on shark fin soup at state banquets, where the dish was seen as a major status symbol, was a major factor in its declining popularity, acknowledges Wild Aid’s Baker. “The fact that the government had an explicit position goes a long way in China.” But there were a number of keys to the campaign’s success of the campaign, he adds, most notably the willingness of the hugely popular and respected former basketball star Yao Ming to serve as its spokesman.

“We came at it from every angle – overfishing, depleting the oceans, the cruelty involved in finning, toxicology due to accumulated heavy metals. Most people in mainland China didn’t even realize what was in the soup, because the term for it in Mandarin doesn’t include the word shark,” explains Baker. “It helped that CCTV [China’s gigantic public television network] produced a segment for their 60 Minutes-like news program. And we had huge support from media partners, equivalent to about $200 million in donated media to air public service announcements, which we got for free. We don’t use overly graphic imagery, and we run campaigns that are generally positive rather than shaming wrong behavior.”

Wild Aid is now leading campaigns against the consumption of manta rays, elephant ivory and rhino horns, using the star power of Jackie Chan and David Beckham, among others. “Some people say China will never change, but our experience is that it’s actually changing quite fast, and in many ways for the better,” says Baker.

“The Wild Aid campaign looks like an excellent case study in how to use mass media and the power of celebrity effectively,” says Olson. “I give them the highest marks for effective communication in ocean conservation, with Sea Shepherd [which has generated considerable media attention by obstructing whalers on the high seas] a close second. Most NGOs are too literal minded to understand how it all works.”

Still, Baker acknowledges that campaigning to protect animals such as sharks and rays is probably easier than working on more abstract or diffuse issues, such as halting overfishing, ocean acidification, preventing trash and pollution from entering the ocean, or protecting coastal ecosystems: “The more specific it is and the more it relates to people’s lives, the easier it is to communicate.”

Peer Pressure

If communications campaigns are to grapple effectively with these broader issues, they will probably need to come up with new approaches, according to RARE’s Sadowsky and her colleague Kevin Green.

“The most disruptive technology in social change is the emergence of new fields in behavioral sciences, looking at how people make decisions and cooperate,” explains Green. “Traditionally, social marketing focused on how behavior related to the costs and benefits for individuals. Social change industries were built on the assumption that people are rational maximizers – homo economicus.

“But the new field of behavioral economics, and new ideas from social psychology, political science and evolutionary theory are converging on how humans cooperate. That is altering how we approach behavior change. People can act collectively if they’re motivated to do so, and there are no greater collective action problems than oceans and climate change.

“An example of the new approach would be messaging that works to strengthen group identities. For instance, if you have a community that is comprised of many different fishers, you would try to get them all to adopt sustainable management practices. They might not have a sense of their group identity, or that identity might just be latent or not strong,” says Green. “So, first you need to strengthen group identity by using messaging that promotes existing values that enable them shift norms collectively.”

“Previously, we just reached out to individuals as to why they should change their behavior,” adds Sadowsky. “Now we’re trying to establish normative behavior. A lot of research has shown — even in the US but especially in developing countries — that the sense of what other people are doing is hugely motivating to get people to try things they haven’t done before, and getting them to stick to it. It’s the different between using a ‘we’ term as opposed to a ‘you’ term.”

Green and Sadowsky point to successful strategies such as the Opower Energy Efficiency approach, where energy consumption in a neighborhood is made publicly observable. When people see how their neighbors are reducing their energy consumption, they are motivated to do likewise. Another example is the messaging you often see in hotel rooms, urging patrons to re-use their towels to save on the electricity (and the cost) used in washing them. It turns out, explains Sadowsky, that standard environmental messaging works less well in such cases than messages which state, for instance, that a majority of the previous residents in that hotel, or even in that room, re-used their towels.

The research findings have essentially re-emphasized that humans are social creatures, and that social marketing programs – especially when aimed at resolving collective action problems — have to focus on “moving the herd” as opposed to a bunch on individuals. “We call them Pride campaigns, because pride in a community or their environment is one of the most powerful motivating forces, even when trying to put food on the table,” explains Green.

And if that pride is not there, or if a norm doesn’t exist in a community, social marketers look to connect groups, especially as the issues they’re tackling get bigger and even global in nature. That’s where media can be helpful. Green cites the Ice Bucket Challenge that spread like wildfire (ostensibly to raise money for ALS research) as an example of the power of social media in particular, but he and his colleagues are looking to change norms as opposed to a one-off action.

“When a norm doesn’t exist in one place but does elsewhere, we have to tap into that normative behavior even if it’s not within eyesight,” he concludes.

Marine Neuromarketing

Nichols, meanwhile, has been studying a different approach, looking at what neuroscience research has to say about individual human behavior. But his conclusions seem to fit in well with those of the social marketers.

“Neuroscience will change the way we do laws and education, so it will also be useful in understanding why water is appealing,” says Nichols, the author of a book – Blue Mind – whose tag line essentially comprises its thesis: The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected and Better at What You Do. “There’s lots of interesting research going on, although it’s not necessarily right on the dot in terms of ocean conservation.”

Nichols and his colleagues brought together some leading neuroscientists with some of the best people working with water to use electroencephalograms and fMRI equipment to see “why our brains love the ocean.”

“The ocean gives us oxygen, jobs and seafood, but it also gives us romance, creativity, solitude, spirituality, privacy, relaxation, and a feeling of awe. Fishermen love the feeling of being out on the water, although they may not talk about it in public, and it’s the same with scientists who work on the ocean.

(Credit: Petra Manche/NOAA's National Ocean Service)

(Credit: Petra Manche/NOAA’s National Ocean Service)

“The number one source of awe for people is nature, and within nature it is bodies of water, according to a study by UC Irvine and UC Berkeley. This feeling of awe gives us higher feelings of empathy and compassion, and shifts our perception of time, shifts us from a ‘me’ perspective to a ‘we’ perspective.

“This has implications for conservation. Once we understand it better, it could change the way we talk about the oceans. Currently, we don’t see words like ‘awe’ and ‘romance’ and ‘creativity’ in such communications, instead the focus is on economic value. But whenever we put a number on the blue economy it massively undervalues the worth of the oceans.”

Nichols is aware that his exploration of these themes has opened him to criticism. “People ask me why I’m wrecking my career as an ecologist,” he admits. “But hanging out with neuroscientists — it’s the hardest science in the room, it’s not ‘touchy-feely’. Neuromarketers put these lessons into practice. Corona uses Blue Mind to sell bad beer. McDonalds and Coke sell love and happiness. We in the conservation community shy away from those words.”

There is indeed criticism of this approach. Olson agrees that “Ocean Lovers” is a real phenomenon — people become so infatuated with the oceans they can’t get enough of just loving them. But when it comes to communications, he complains, it’s also the recipe for boredom.

RARE’s Sardowsky points out that if the audience is first world donors, the emotional hook is extremely important to get them to sign a petition or give money to a cause. But for audiences such as those in the developing world who are concerned about survival every day, even if emotion plays a big role, there has to be a material benefit for collective action.

Then there are the “new neuro-skeptics” who question what the approach of using neuroscience to determine how we make decisions has gotten us thus far. “A core objection is that neuroscientific ‘explanations’ of behavior often simply re-state what’s already obvious,” writes Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker. “Neuroscience can often answer the obvious questions but rarely the interesting ones.”

One of the more interesting questions that neuroscience should seemingly be able to help answer is how do we make decisions. In fact, the study of “decision science” now goes back decades and has been often cultivated toward environmental ends.

“What’s missing is that there’s a vast subconscious we’re not aware of, but that is where the action is,” claims Nichols. “It’s not necessarily that ‘you’re deciding’, but it’s more about behavior science. We can look at what a brain does when someone is answering questions, and often it will indicate something very different from what they’re saying. The truth is we don’t really know why people decide – calling it ‘motivation science’ might be a better term, or the science of drive.

Nichols is a fan of the book Descartes’ Error by the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, which claims that humans are driven more by irrational tendencies than we’re willing to admit. After reading it, Nichols came to accept that actions are often driven by emotions, not a rational analysis of information.

Neuromarketers are trying to turn the art of persuasion into something approaching a science, but they haven’t thought much about the oceans yet. Still, says Nichols, their work could have implications for the way we communicate about the ocean. It could help us better time our delivery of conservation messages, for instance, by displaying them when people disembark from whale-watching boats or come ashore after kayaking.

“I understand there are reasons why big NGOs and funding agencies tend to go too narrow too quickly in their messaging. It’s easier to justify to lots of people, but it’s wrong,” he asserts. “There’s a disconnect between the Neuroscience departments and the Ecology departments on campus, even though they may only be a couple of minutes away from each other.”

Green from RARE concludes that, “we often rationalize after the fact, but by and large we are not rational decision-makers. Decisions are often made at least as much on an emotional basis. It’s not a purely selfish maximizing calculation, but sometimes we’re afraid to admit that.”


What can we conclude from all this speculation about the future of ocean communications?

There will always be a need to communicate the rational basis for protecting the oceans, to explain what the data is telling us about their status, and to offer up practical science-based solutions. That has always been vital, but it appears not to be sufficient.

(Credit: Flickr/Fabrizio Anglus)

(Credit: Flickr/Fabrizio Anglus)

Increasingly, communications experts are telling us that as much as we may worry about the state of the oceans, spreading fears and lectures about impending doom should take a back seat to the use of peer pressure and the adoption of entertainment techniques in efforts to change public policy and behavior. This is particularly true if the goal is not just sustainability, but preservation.

Scaring people can spur action, but inspiring them may be more sustainable in the long run. After all, there has always been a mythical, or mystical, component to conservation. We don’t just protect forests or landscapes because we need them, but also because of the way they make us feel to be in them, or just to look at them.

Maybe what all the technology and the neuroscience and the social marketing research is telling us is that, to value and protect the oceans, we first need to remind people how much they love them.

[1] The author is the Executive Director of the Earth Journalism Network