What will the future of the oceans be like? Internews’ Earth Journalism Network (EJN) has commissioned a series of stories that will explore disruptive innovations likely to affect marine conservation, providing a multi-dimensional, global look at the technologies, policies, and people that are creating a new future for the world's oceans. There are reasons to believe we may be on the threshold of profound changes in our ability to manage and regulate the seas.
Please join EJN as we explore what new technologies and other innovations that are either in the lab or on the horizon have the potential to fundamentally alter how humanity uses and manages the oceans. Funding for this series is being provided by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.
Charting the Future of Ocean Media and Messaging
A look at the potential future of ocean communications suggests that the message may change as much as the media. James Fahn reports.
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.
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.”
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 (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.”
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.
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.”
“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.”
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