#OceanOptimism & the psychology of powerlessness and hope from current BBC Wildlife Magazine

The current issue of BBC Wildlife Magazine has a fascinating cover story by Elin Kelsey on hope and optimism versus despair in how we think and act about the environment. Essentially, much media discourse on the environment tends to be gloomy, doom, and generally despairing. Kelsey cites a wide range of research on how this negativity effects how we think about the environment and our beliefs about what can be done – and therefore what is done – to improve things. The BBC Wildlife article is not available online.  This article from Smithsonian Magazine is briefer and has fewer references to specific researchers, but the ideas are the same:

Things are far more resilient than I ever imagined. Me, green sea turtles, coral reefs blown to bits by atomic bombs. In a twist of fate that even surprised scientists, Bikini Atoll, site of one of the world’s biggest nuclear explosions, is now a scuba diver’s paradise. Bikini Atoll located in the Pacific’s Marshall Islands didn’t just inspire the famous bathing suit; the US Army detonated the first hydrogen bomb there. Between 1946 and 1958, 23 nuclear explosions were carried out, at an incalculable cost to the people and the marine environment. Fifty years later, scientists record a thriving coral reef habitat that includes large tree-like branching coral formations with trunks the diameter of dinner plates. “It’s made a brilliant recovery,” says Zoe Richards, a scientist at the Australian Museum.

I’ve been awash in uplifting news about the ocean lately. Each day, tweets from #OceanOptimism alert me to marine conservation successes happening all over the world: a new marine sanctuary in the Galapagos Islands to protect the world’s highest concentrations of sharks; green sea turtles in Florida and Mexico no longer listed as endangered thanks to successful conservation efforts; a major fishing deal offers protection to Arctic waters.

Kelsey founded the Ocean Optimism project to highlight the resilience of ocean ecosystems, and the progress already made in preservation and restoration. This was inspired by her own experience of how children in particular react to environmentalist nihilism:

For me, the impact of doom and gloom on kids, in particular, came as a shock. For years, I had worked with aquariums, museums, and international environmental organizations, creating strategies to engage people with marine issues. As an academic, I understood the national statistics about what people in many different countries knew and what their attitudes were toward climate change, overfishing, and other problems. But how all that “knowing” felt was nowhere to be found in that vast pool of information.

I realized that omission when I was invited to speak with young people attending a United Nations children’s conference on the environment in 2008 in Stavanger, Norway. The participants, who ranged in age from 10 to14 years old, came from more than 90 countries and a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds. “How do you feel when you think about the environment?” I asked. I don’t remember what I expected them to say, but so many of them expressed such a chilling sense of dread that I felt powerless to comfort them. I knew exactly what they meant. I, too, often felt despair about the state of the world. I just never imagined such feelings were shared among children living in vastly varied circumstances.

Global dread, eco-anxiety, environmental grief—despair about the future of the planet has garnered many labels in recent years. In our noble zeal to emphasize the urgency and enormity of environmental issues, we may inadvertently be raising a generation that feels hopeless about the future of the planet. Studies within the past decade from the United Kingdom, Australia, and the United States find a quarter to a half of children surveyed are so troubled about the state of the world, they honestly believe it will come to an end before they get older.

Kelsey describes the legitimate reasons ecologist and environmentalists have for trading more in bad news than good – particular not wishing to play into the hands of denialists of various stripes (digression – AutoCorrect changed “denialist” to “dentists” just now) However, in so doing, they man be undermining the very efforts they are advocating for:

Hopelessness undermines the very engagement with marine issues we seek to create. According to researchers at Columbia University’s Center for Research on Environmental Decisions, there are limits to the amount of concerns we can deal with at one time. They call it the “finite pool of worry.” Overburdening people’s capacity for worry with too much doom and gloom leads to emotional numbing. When we believe our actions are too small to make a difference, we tend to behave in ways that create the conditions in which those expectations are realized. By bombarding people with bad news about the oceans at scales that feel too large to surmount, we cause them to downplay, tune out, or shut down. Hopelessness is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The rest of the article is worth reading for its insights into how #OceanOptimism can move people from this position of hopelessness to one of hope and therefore potential action. I had not come across the “finite pool of worry” concept before. In the BBC Wildlife article Kelsey cites Elke Weber of Columbia University as the originator of it. The BBC Wildlife article also has a good quote from Nancy Knowlton  of the Smithsonian Institution that gets to the heart of the matter;

“I look at marine conservation biologists as akin to doctors of the ocean,” Knowlton explains, “and doctors don’t train just to write obituaries. They fill medical journals with stories of advances and successes”

The article is thought-provoking (and hopefully hope inspiring and action provoking in many ways, some of which I will explore on my more medical blog… but one link to a recent post here came to me – Marie Thompson on noise, “the conservative politics of silence”, and soundscapes. Thompson writes:

To my mind, the conservative politics of silence informs a number of assumptions that are frequently made about what are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sonic environments; it relates to a preference for the simple over the complex, sameness over difference, past over present, predictability over unpredictability, the ‘synthetic’ over the ‘natural’ (whatever that might mean) and, ultimately, quietude over noise. This ideological framework underlines much ‘common sense’ about auditory experience, however it frequently remains unacknowledged.

Perhaps what Thompson omits is that the “conservative” politics of silence is often really a discourse of decline and loss. Silence and natural (or “natural”, if you prefer) soundscapes are defined by their absence, by their loss. This kind of cultural pessimism can be very seductive. And of course, it is rooted in a reality . Gordon Hempton’s One Square Inch of Silence  is a good example of a hopeful project, almost archetypal of the better-light-a-candle-than-curse-the-darkness philosophy, and naturally enough having to fight against threats near constantly .

One thought

  1. Reblogged this on A Medical Education and commented:

    The current BBC Wildlife Magazine has a fascinating article by Elin Kelsey, of the Ocean Optimism Project, on how media-fuelled environmental despair and nihilism ends up demoralising people to the degree that positive action seems impossible. She cites much research on the “finite pool of worry” and the paralysing effect of despair, and the power optimism to reverse this trend.

    This is obviously focused on ecology, but is all too true of our healthcare systems. For similar reasons to those Kelsey ascribes to environmentalists who are wary of being overly focused on good news, frontline workers in the health service naturally tend to focus on what is wrong, what is proving impossible, what needs to change. This is necessary, but can become an overwhelming counsel of nihilism, fostering cynicism and very often helping to entrench negative practices.


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