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Communicating environmental issues

In this video, Judy Motion counters apocalyptic visions of the future with a need to create optimistic stories that engender a sense of agency.
The ways that we talk about the future of nature really do matter. Attempts to draw attention to critical environmental challenges regularly employ stories and images that are loaded with fear appeals and alarmist rhetoric. Apocalyptic images of the future, barren landscapes damaged beyond repair, forests rased to the ground, irreparable biodiversity loss, visibly polluted air, water, and soil, repeated crop failures, and desparate mass migrations may all engender a sense of hopelessness and despair. Faced with such overwhelming challenges, a common response is to simply do nothing. So should communication messages or appeals be negatively or positively framed? The effectiveness of negative or positive appeals depends first on the issue.
Research suggests that appeals that focus on the importance and severity of an issue do succeed in raising awareness and concern. However, if you continue to bombard people with negative messages after you’ve raised awareness, they will just switch off. It is crucial, once you’ve raised awareness, that communication is action-oriented. Encourage and empower audiences by providing them with options of what they may do to make a difference. Generally, positive messages and information about options for action are more useful. However, not all positive messages succeed. An interesting spin battle that is playing out here in Australia is the attempt to persuade Australians that coal is beneficial.
While opening a mine in 2014, the then Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, called it “a great day for humanity” and stated, “Coal is vital for the future energy needs of the world. So let’s have no demonisation of coal. Coal is good for humanity.” This is a positive message, yet it was widely criticised. A possible explanation for the criticism is that, notably, a few months earlier, the prime minister had labelled himself a conservationist and seemed supportive of climate change initiatives when he’d met with US President Barack Obama. This strategic attempt to achieve several contradictory goals calls into question the principles that guide such communication.
The overall impression is that this is simply all spin, a series of soundbites designed to promote industry propaganda.
This spin is underpinned by the advocacy efforts of the Minerals Council of Australia, an industry lobbying association that has spent millions on advertising to oppose climate change initiatives and the imposition of certain taxes. The Mineral Council’s latest advertisement tiled “Coal. It is an amazing thing” attempts to persuade Australians of the benefits and endless possibilities of coal. So here in Australia we have a coal mining industry that is using positive claims, but these messages do not seem to have achieved significant impact. It is not enough to craft positive messages, no matter how creative or clear. The key lesson is that if the communication does not resonate with social norms, values, or attachments that influence audiences sense-making processes, it cannot succeed.
So how do we move beyond apocalyptic visions of the future? What should our messages about nature and climate change focus on? Over the years, my research has demonstrated that internationally, the key norms and priorities that come into play when making sense of environmental issues and controversial proposals are altruism and a sense of social and environmental justice. Nature and the environment are complicated cultural concepts. The challenge is to create a sense of connection and empathy rather than an apocalyptic, disempowering vision of the future. The notion of wayfinding offers possible navigational strategies for engaging with nature and mobilising publics. Wayfinding is the art and science of understanding how people perceive the environment and make decisions while navigating unfamiliar spaces.
Navigating an uncertain future requires nature-first orientations that are informed by innovative design and listening to the collective wisdom of communities. In much the same way ancient mariners navigated by sun, star, sea, and weather patterns, we need to let nature guide us and choose our directions carefully to find our way to a sustainable future. I have always liked the notion of desire lines, those tracks that emerge from the shortcuts we create getting from one place to another that disregard established pathways. What conversations and stories do we need to help communities create a series of desire lines for the future? Bob Brown in his compelling positively
titled book, Optimism: Reflections on a Life of Action suggests that we should get active rather than depressed. Bob states that “Optimism is a key ingredient for any successful human endeavour.” And then he challenges us by asking, “Isn’t keeping Earth viable the greatest human endeavour we can ever undertake?” So let’s open up conversations and create stories about the future that engender a sense of optimism and agency, conversations and stories for navigating a path through the environmental problems we have created that will inspire a sustainable futures.
In her work, Environmental Humanities researcher Judy Motion looks at the public discourses that shape relationships between environment and society. In this video, Judy explains how important it is for communications around environmental issues to resonate with social norms, values and attachments.
In addition to highlighting the importance of both facts and values, Judy’s talk emphasises the power of optimism in provoking environmental agency. She suggests that it matters how we frame messages and stories, and that people need to take responsibility for the types of communication they use.

What do you think?

According to Judy, why is it important for communications about an environmental issue to resonate with social norms and values? Do you agree?


  1. Bob Brown, Optimism: Reflections on a Life of Action (South Yarra: Hardie Grant Books, 2014)
  2. Oliver Milman, Mining industry’s new ‘coal is amazing’ TV ad labelled desperate, The Guardian 6 September, 2015.
  3. Gabrielle Chan, Tony Abbott says ‘coal is good for humanity’ while opening mine, The Guardian 29 July, 2015.
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Environmental Humanities: Remaking Nature

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