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To increase ocean literacy, narratives hold promise

You can find more information about Future Earth events at the UN Ocean Conference here.

Most people on Earth, even those living in land-locked countries, depend on the ocean – for food, relaxation, shipping or dozens of other benefits that humans get from the seas. Today, however, the problems facing the ocean rank low on the priorities for many communities: In one survey from the U.S., respondents put “the condition of the world’s oceans” 10th on a list of 15 environmental issues that they were extremely or very concerned about.

These disconnects provide challenges to applied researchers like Amelia Greiner Safi, a senior research associate in the Department of Communication and faculty in the Master of Public Health Program at Cornell University in the United States. Her work focuses on the ways that people understand, and act on, information about a range of health, environmental and social problems. She is interested in translating research on communication and factors involved in behaviour change for non-academic audiences so that these findings are accessible and can inform practice and policy. In the case of the ocean, one way to possibly motivate change, she says, is to create relateable narratives about the current state and future of the watery world.

Greiner Safi will speak on a panel about fostering “ocean literacy” at an event on 9 June at the United Nations Ocean Conference in New York. This event is organised by Future Earth, the International Council for Science (ICSU) and other partners. She sat down with Future Earth's Daniel Strain to discuss how the scientific community can talk about the ocean in ways that hit home for land-dwellers.

Daniel Strain: What can we say about how much the public knows, or doesn't, about how humans are affecting the health of the ocean?

Amelia Greiner Safi. Photo: Tiit Lukk

Amelia Greiner Safi: In surveys specific to oceans, people are often more concerned about the ocean than they are informed about the details of ocean problems. In a way, that’s good news as getting people to care and believe there is a problem is an important hurdle for creating change. People fairly consistently have pollution, overfishing, melting sea ice and flooding at the top of the list – and there’s general awareness that at least some of the problems are caused by people.

That said, people are not clear on exactly what human action is leading to the ocean health issue at hand. This is especially true for ocean acidification. Often even those concerned don’t see their day-to-day activities as impacting the oceans. Others don’t know what policies or larger-scale efforts would address the problem in question. One European survey showed that 57% of people didn’t believe individual changes would improve ocean health.

There’s also a lot we don’t know about ocean literacy. There’s disagreement about what information is important for people to know. Also, and this is huge, much of the available research on ocean knowledge or awareness focuses on more western audiences, which isn’t sufficient at all for an issue as global as ocean health.

DS: Are ocean issues more complicated to communicate than the challenges facing our lands?

AGS: Human-environment challenges can be tricky to communicate, whether terrestrial- or ocean-focused, because it requires people to make indirect, or what we call “upstream,” linkages. Asking people to map how their driving habits impact air quality, let alone the ocean, is challenging both for the number of steps and the science involved – even if described in the simplest of terms.

There are studies that argue that as primarily land-based creatures we are more familiar with and able to observe and discuss land-based changes. Other studies show that awareness of the ocean other than beaches – like the deep ocean – is extremely poor. Oceans are often conceived as vast, powerful, resilient. And for some, this makes accepting the concept of ocean fragility more challenging. But think the bigger issue is that for people who are concerned, they don't see their actions as impacting the ocean.

DS: The oceans can seem far away.

AGS: Right – far away in a number of ways. There’s research that has addressed the problem of “psychological distance” and ocean health. The idea here is that the more abstract an issue is to an audience, the harder it is to inspire change. So for some, “ocean health” may be confusing in terms of what it means and may be abstract in terms of impacting “other” people somewhere else in the future. So there’s a need to lessen that distance.

Depending on the audience, offering a concrete, immediate and relatable point of entry through something familiar – beaches, vacations, seafood, jobs, local economy – may be a much more viable means of talking about ocean issues than starting off with a broad concept like ocean health or ocean acidification. This isn’t to minimise the scale of the problem – it’s to open a door to allow for further conversation.

DS: Various groups have come up with different definitions of what should constitute "ocean literacy." Can you explain these different approaches?

AGS: People use and understand “ocean literacy” in different ways that may have little to do with the formal definitions out there. Ocean literacy was originally formally defined in the U.S. in 2004 as “an understanding of the ocean’s influence on you and your influence on the ocean.” That definition is accompanied by seven key principles and 44 concepts – and an expectation that an ocean literate person understands these concepts, can communicate meaningfully about the ocean and make informed ocean-related decisions. Associated endeavors often focused on K-12 education and engagement at aquariums. 

More recently, there have been two large, multi-year ocean literacy campaigns in the European Union that expand upon the goals, means and audience – with more attention to policy and behaviour change. They are Sea Change and ResponSEAable. IOC-UNESCO also recently announced a voluntary commitment of “Ocean Literacy for All” with a much more global partnership and audience. I’m interested to see how this unfolds.

DS: What are the big considerations moving forward?

AGS: I think one of the big questions to think about is what the various goals behind ocean literacy are and how well-matched the efforts are to those goals – given that we know information alone isn’t usually sufficient for change. Is the goal to increase awareness? To generate connection, interest and wonder? Or to drive action now at a variety of levels that leads to conservation or more sustainable use of the seas? Those are very different goals and impact what information is important and what means of communication is most effective.

The more these efforts involve an understanding of their audiences and what might be motivating them, the better. Similarly, the more these efforts can support or make use of people serving as “science-policy intermediaries” – individuals whose role is to directly help businesses and policy-makers incorporate evidence – the easier it is to drive large scale change.

DS: What should scientists and science communicators do to get across these issues?

AGS: Well, I can offer some thoughts on what might be helpful based on work from a variety of researchers. Thinking about a way to establish a connection via emotion or a shared value, such as responsibility or protection, can be really important for getting attention, making the story relatable and accessible and possibly motivating action. There’s a huge need for a solution focus. If bad news or fear-based messages about the ocean aren’t coupled with a sense that people can do something about it at individual, community or policy levels, people can shut down and ignore what’s going on, not bother to try or be even more resistant to making a change.

Finally, these are complicated issues, and people process information in really different ways, so it’s critical to help them connect the dots through as many different media and styles as possible – through written words, spoken words, images, metaphor, simple examples and more complex ones.

DS: It seems like it’s crucial to understand who we’re trying reach, too.

AGS: Absolutely. I see this as understanding what means are effective to even start a conversation. There was a survey from the AP, NORC and Yale recently about different environmental attitudes, values and behaviours in the US. One of my takeaways is that there is an enormous middle ground of people that fall in between the clearly environmentally-friendly and the anti-environmental. These are important audiences to understand. It’s worth remembering that many in that middle might make “environmental” decisions for reasons that have more to do with their health or that of someone they know, to save money or for religious or moral reasons, rather than overtly environmental ones.

Sometimes the behaviour in question is not easy or convenient – so this points to both individual and structural considerations. In other words, what can change to make a sustainable choice the easy one? Also, for tactics on how to frame issues for these audiences, there’s been great, publicly available work on how to talk about climate change or oceans and health. FrameWorks has done excellent work around ocean communication in particular.

DS: You’ve spoken about how the idea of “narrative” can be really important to getting attention and possibly inspiring change.

AGS: There’s been fabulous work recently on the role of narrative and science, especially for communicating with and engaging non-experts. Narrative serves as relatable way to marry science with human experience. Narrative accounts are more digestible, easier to remember and can help crystallise both the benefits of taking action now and the costs of not. If people can remember and explain something, then they can share it – with friends, colleagues, policy-makers. That bodes well for getting and keeping an issue on the agenda amidst a sea of competing needs. If a story can help make an economic case by making the costs of inaction visible and meaningful, all the better. There was a great example of a narrative about ocean acidification from researchers in the U.S. a few years ago.

Because narratives can be so compelling, there are ethical considerations about whether the goal is to persuade or to help improve comprehension. There’s also concern about how closely the specific example relates to a more general scientific principle. Is the narrative portraying something that’s likely or the worst-case scenario? So as long as these considerations are actively weighed, there is exciting potential ahead