Category Archives: Opinion

How to talk about COVID-19 for conservation professionals

We’re all currently living though a time of uncertainty and personal crisis, so – while I’m sure you’re growing very used to seeing these words at the top of every email – I hope you and your communities are going okay.

Every day our communication and use of language matters, but during a crisis like this, the impact of communication becomes particularly clear.

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Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

We can all have a positive influence on the language and social discourse around this crisis by being mindful about our own conversations and encouraging thoughtful and strategic communication approaches in our own workplace and community groups.

Below are my recommendations for conservation professionals on how to talk about COVID-19, drawing from my own strategic communications experience and some of the fantastic advice and resources published recently online (see below for links).

Be generous and understanding

People are – at the very least –  stressed and anxious right now. Many people have lost their jobs, and everyone is going through changes in their lifestyle and work life. Being considerate and aware of what everyone is going through, considering when others may be more seriously impacted than yourself, and making sure this is reflected in the tone and approach of your communications will encourage empathy and remind us that we’re all in this together.

Be accurate

Help to prevent the spread of misinformation by checking your sources before you pass on information. Don’t reshare infographics or lists of recommendations without checking where they come from. Listen to authorities like the World Health Organisation and government departments when it comes to sharing recommendations and guidelines. The stakes for miscommunication of health information are higher in a crisis situation. Individuals may be more susceptible to misinformation, and clear communication around the changing situation and up-to-date advice are vital for an effective coordinated response from the community as a whole.

Be clear on the purpose of your communication

Part of being generous and understanding is being clear on the purpose of your communications. This involves carefully considering who your intended audience is and what exactly you are asking of them (if anything!) and whether this ask is appropriate right now. Having a clear purpose is a key basis for any kind of strategic communication, but it is particularly important during a crisis such as COVID-19, when individuals are being bombarded with sometimes conflicting and highly emotional messages (and even advertisers are using coronavirus to sell).

Most communications around COVID-19 will be aiming to inform or educate the public or encourage compliance with local government recommendations, or (more often) both! There are many different communication approaches and strategies that can be applied for both these aims but for the purposes of this blog post I will discuss two broad kinds of communication: science communication and strategic communication.

Science communication (e.g. increasing public understanding of how COVID-19 spreads, explaining prediction models, debunking myths etc.)

Examples: ABC’s Coronacast, RMIT’s Fact Check

Science communication traditionally uses the knowledge-deficit model: the idea that people will change how they think and behave if they understand the science. In a public health crisis situation like the COVID-19 crisis, this approach can be more effective than usual as members of the public tend to be paying more attention to expert advice and be more likely to take it on board.

Science communication has a crucial role to play in COVID-19 communications, particularly around how the virus spreads, and how individuals can protect themselves and their communities. But effectively and accurately communicating science and health research to the public can be a challenge. Clearly communicating uncertainty and risk can be particularly challenging but it is crucial for helping the public understand the uncertainties around predictive models of the spread of the virus and around the predicted effectiveness of different interventions.

However, since humans do not always behave rationally, we cannot rely entirely on traditional science communication approaches to trigger behavioural changes like compliance with recommendations.

Strategic communication (e.g. increasing public compliance with physical distancing recommendations, fostering a culture of community and optimism)

Examples: Dan Andrews’ social media profiles, ACF’s covid update

Strategic communications specifically aim to encourage people to act in a certain way (e.g. physical distancing) or foster a particular message frame or narrative in the media or social discourse. Strategic communication is an umbrella term that encompasses many kinds of purposeful communications approaches, including crisis and risk communication, and public engagement.

In all kinds of strategic communication, you should consider what you want your listeners or readers to do as a result of your message. Will the tone, structure and focus of your message change your audience’s behaviour in a desirable way? For example, it may be tempting to use social media to express your own feelings and opinions about an issue you are passionate about, but if you are ultimately aiming to encourage people to act in a certain way, that may not be the most suitable approach (depending on your audience). Consider carefully your communication goals, your audience and your approach before you post.

It is also worth noting that science communication and strategic communication approaches are not mutually exclusive. Science communication can be strategically designed, and strategic communication can incorporate scientific ideas and concepts into messages. 

Be careful with your language

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Photo by Марьян Блан | @marjanblan on Unsplash

Small changes in the language we use can have substantial impacts on understanding and perceptions around an issue. Below are some common recommendations for language use around COVID-19. Check out the further reading links or check out Dr Suzanne Wertheim’s Twitter thread below for more detail and research around these tips.

  • Describe numbers of detected cases as “known cases” instead of “cases”
  • Make human agency explicit by describing how “we spread the virus by going outside” rather than “the virus is spreading itself”
  • Use social norming (i.e. make it about me, us, we, our community) to make the issue personally and socially relevant, and communicate how “most Australians are doing the right thing by staying home” rather than saying “people aren’t staying home!” (us humans like doing what other people are doing!)
  • Describe staying at home as “physical distancing” rather than “social distancing” to convey how we still want people to stay connected and social but taking care of each other by staying away
  • Emphasise kindness, community and cooperation rather than fear, othering or panic

Can we still talk about biodiversity and climate change?

It’s becoming increasingly clear that coronavirus is already having a dramatic impact on our everyday life, and many jurisdictions have declared states of emergency. So in the short term, we need to carefully consider the relevance and appropriateness of our conservation messaging and be especially sensitive to the personal and social context of the individuals we are trying to engage.

However, it is worth being aware of situations in which conservation work and messaging continues to be needed. For example, with climate talks being postponed and the public focused on COVID-19, we run the risk of important actions being delayed or ignored. Our experience with the current crisis may even be a taste of what is to come in future climate crises.

Where do we want this story to go?

Looking long term, it now seems undeniable that coronavirus is changing the world, and the social context in which we continue to research and work will be different even if we eventually return ‘back to normal’.

As conservation scientists we don’t want to see COVID-19 create a new social and narrative context where taking action on issues like biodiversity conservation or climate change are even more difficult. As communicators, we need to think about where we want the story to go. Perhaps economic reform as a result of COVID-19 could also make progress towards a more sustainable future? Perhaps rather than bouncing back, we can bounce forward after coronavirus?

We can start to lay the foundation for these conversations now by avoiding comparing crises (e.g. by lamenting that biodiversity conservation hasn’t had the same response as COVID-19) and focus instead on needing kindness and cooperation, and scientific expertise. Some current responses to COVID-19 convey border control and security message frames, which don’t set a healthy narrative context for action for biodiversity conservation or climate change.

By focusing instead on humanity’s ability to band together in the face of an existential crisis, and asking people to continue to have courage, we allow the space for future calls for action to tackle climate change. By highlighting that we have been able to make changes to our way of life when called for, we increase public perceptions of our collective impact and strengthen our own self-belief that we can make meaningful change.

In doing this we foster a narrative of cooperation amidst a crisis, where we listen to the advice of experts, and are able to find solutions to complex and global problems, setting the stage for progress towards a more sustainable future.

Further reading recommendations

Key sources of information:

How to talk about COVID-19:

COVID-19, nature and the climate

Maintaining your mental health and adjusting to a new work and home life:

Where the wild things are: how nature might respond as coronavirus keeps humans indoors

AP News

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Intriguing things sometimes happen in places deserted by people. Plants creep back, animals return and, slowly, birdsong fills the air.

The coronavirus pandemic means public spaces the world over have been temporarily abandoned. Major roads are all but empty and public squares are eerily quiet.

In response, nature is in some cases “taking over towns”. Some reports – such as dolphins spotted in Venice – are fake news. But others are legitimate.

A puma has been spotted roaming the streets of Santiago and wild turkeys are gallivanting in Oakland, California. Monkeys have reclaimed city streets in Thailand and deer are wandering through train stations and down roads in Japan.

Of course, COVID-19 has taken a devastating toll on humanity, and this is nothing to be celebrated. But as Australians stay at home and our streets fall quiet, let’s consider how wildlife might respond.

Animals the world over are creeping back into cities deserted due to COVID-19.
SOHAIL SHAHZAD/EPA

The resilience of nature

Throughout history, nature has shown a propensity for reclaiming land once humans have departed.

At Chernobyl, for instance, radiation has not been enough to suppress populations of gray wolves, raccoon dogs, Eurasian boar and red fox.

Likewise the Korean demilitarised zone has become a refugia for numerous threatened species, including red-crowned cranes.

Ecological succession can occur when humans abandon cities. This is where short-lived “pioneer” species initially occupy sites and are replaced over time by shrubs and trees, ultimately supporting more diverse wildlife.

It’s hard to predict exactly how healthy and biodiverse these systems can become, but they will almost certainly be examples of “novel ecosystems”, having crossed irreversible thresholds due to human impact, such as vegetation reclaiming an abandoned building.

A butterfly on a floor in front of visitors in protective shoes at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in April 2018. SERGEY DOLZHENKO/EPA

Quieter, darker, greener cities

Cities can be hostile places for urban wildlife due to fragmented habitat, pollution, road collisions and disturbance from and conflict with people. But under a coronavirus lockdown, these threats are greatly reduced.

For example, decreases in economic activity in Europe and China have led to improvements in air pollution, which is known to badly affect urban birds. However, this effect might not last long enough to allow for recovery of sensitive bird species; emissions in China are already rising again.

Light pollution may also fall in cities as a result of coronavirus – such as if office buildings turn off overnight lighting and sportsgrounds are empty.

This would benefit nocturnal species such as moths and bats. Artificial light can interfere with reproduction, predator and prey interactions, and migration.

At the end of March, traffic congestion in Sydney and Melbourne was reportedly down more than 30% on last year. Fewer cars and trams would benefit species that communicate acoustically (such as frogs and birds).

Empty roads near Circular Quay in Sydney on March 27 this year. JAMES GOURLEY/AAP

Fewer people actively using city spaces may mean less disturbance of urban bird nesting sites, especially those that are routinely removed from commercial properties.

Depending on whether authorities see weed control as an “essential service”, streets may soon look a bit greener.

Weeds often get a bad rap for taking over gardens and roadsides. However, some, such as dandelions, provide excellent flowering resources for native bees, butterflies and birds.

Deserted roads could potentially add to existing wildlife “corridors” or strips of vegetation along rivers and streams. This would allow species to move from one place to another – potentially recolonising areas.

What next?

Once traffic returns to levels observed before the pandemic, we should preserve observed animal movements using safe passage strategies such as vegetated overpasses that connect bisected habitat or adequately sized underpasses to allow wildlife to safely cross under large, busy roads.

Nature can reclaim places that have been totally abandoned for years, creating novel ecosystems.
Pixabay, CC BY

In the longer term, this crisis may bring innovation in business communication and human behavioural change – including reduced work travel. This could influence land-use changes in cities, potentially giving space back to nature.

The current need for people to stay at home might be triggering a human disconnection from nature. In some cases, this can lead people to become emotionally distanced from what happens to their natural environment. This could be ameliorated by exercising in local parks or other natural environments.

You can also use your time at home to positively contribute to wildlife in your urban area. If you’re looking to keep kids entertained, try developing a “renaturing” plan that aims to care for, or bring back, a species or ecosystems.

There are also many ways to retrofit your home, garden or balcony to help plants and animals.

Or discover the incredible species living alongside us by simply paying attention to nature near your home.


Sarah Bekessy, Professor in Sustainability and Urban Planning, Leader, Interdisciplinary Conservation Science Research Group (ICON Science), RMIT University; Alex Kusmanoff, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Inter-disciplinary Conservation (ICON) Science Research Group, RMIT University; Brendan Wintle, Professor in Conservation Ecology, School of BioSciences, University of Melbourne; Casey Visintin, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, School of BioSciences, University of Melbourne; Freya Thomas, Research Fellow, Centre for Urban Research, RMIT University; Georgia Garrard, Senior Research Fellow, Interdisciplinary Conservation Science Research Group, RMIT University; Katherine Berthon, PhD Candidate, RMIT University; Lee Harrison, Honorary Associate, University of Melbourne; Matthew Selinske, Postdoctoral research associate conservation science, RMIT University, and Thami Croeser, Research Officer, Centre for Urban Research, RMIT University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 

Why politics and context matter in conservation policy

By Florence Damiens

Politics and context matter for conservation policy. That is why our research group, in collaboration with Brian Coffey and Lauren Rickards from RMIT University’s Centre for Urban Research, has just published a collective reply to Peter Kareiva and Emma Fuller’s article in Global Policy.

In brief, we argue that Kareiva’s and Fuller’s proposal does not sufficiently consider the core challenges faced by biodiversity conservation researchers and practitioners in this time of dramatic change, for people and nature. Conservation issues are context-dependent: ecological, economic, social, ethical and political. Embracing and responding to this complexity is a necessity when conceiving potential solutions for the future of conservation, humans and the biosphere.

While some of the approaches the authors promote may work in particular situations, we believe their proposal risks unintended and detrimental social and ecological consequences by presenting them as global solutions to complex problems that are context-dependent. In particular, their proposal does not address some of the key causes of biodiversity loss, i.e. over-exploitation of natural resources, intensive agricultural activity, urban development, and pollution. These causes are accepted as fait accompli and their mitigation as potential conservation strategies is not considered. New technologies and ‘managing for evolution’ are presented as guiding principles for any context, which is problematic. Moreover, the questions around what should be conserved, the processes by which biodiversity is valued, and who has the legitimacy to value it are not addressed. Lastly, we argue that a one-size-fits-all utilitarian approach and a neoliberal governance model, as proposed by Kareiva and Fuller, risks poor involvement or opposition from communities and societies and may undermine their traditional structures and relationships with nature.

See our full reply here: Damiens et al. (Online, 13 March 2017)

If you can’t access the paper using this link please send me an e-mail (florence.damiens@rmit.edu.au) and I will send you the pdf directly – thanks!

Get rid of politicians and restore democracy

Brendan Wintle and Sarah Bekessy

Picture Suzette. She is economically conservative and socially progressive. Suzette believes in fiscal restraint, reducing debt, deregulation, humanitarian treatment of refugees, reducing carbon emissions and the benefits to society of tax-deductible donations to environment groups. You can see the difficult choice she faces on election day. No single political party will adequately represent her views in parliament. Our party-political system of democracy is failing Suzette and most Australian citizens. A digitally driven direct democracy will be more democratic than the corruptible, self-interested party system we currently endure.

The Irish plebiscite on marriage equality reveals an alternative future for democracy; one driven by the views of citizens on individual issues. Even Peter Reith (www.abc.net.au/news/2015-06-09/former-finance-minister-calls-for-plebiscite-on-gay-marriage/6531526), someone who gained so much from the party system, is advocating citizen decision-making for issues too hot for the party system to handle. Modern technology now makes a ‘direct democracy’; a ‘people’s parliament’, a plausible and practical alternative to the representative party system that consistently fails to adequately represent citizens’ views.

The most famous direct democracy existed in Athens in the fifth century BC. Unless you happened to be female, young, a slave or foreigner, citizens had a say in government on an issue-by-issue basis.

The thread of democracy persisted through Ancient Greece to the modern day. But in large, dispersed populations there was no practical way to maintain direct democracy as it was originally conceived. So rather than voting on issues, we now vote for parties that represent us on a range of issues.

The problem, of course, is that the policy platforms of two or more major parties are unlikely to completely accord with the values held by individual voters. By electing a party you are instantly trading between your values with respect to economic management, social justice, environment, and many other complex issues. Political parties are complicated, cumbersome, corruptible machines; blunt instruments for developing and implementing public policy that represents the views of citizens.

A further problem is that the primary goal of political parties is to gain election or re-election. The end result is policy tailored to the opinions and needs of a handful of voters in marginal electorates. Combined with the impact of heavy hitting lobby groups, representative democracy has come to represent the views of a very small proportion of citizens.

The problems with representative democracy run deeper. Giving over power to representatives reduces our responsibility to be fully informed. At only a few points in the political cycle are political parties strongly motivated to engage citizens with their policy agenda, and even then it tends to be focused on superficial, often divisive issues, with a the primary aim of political point-scoring and little attempt at mature, informative debate.

For the first time since Athens in 400BC, we have the capacity to garner the opinion of the entire public on a regular basis. Modern technology can connect individuals with decision-makers as they were connected in the ancient Greek Assemblies. While there will be many challenges to instituting a peoples parliament, the enormous potential for reclaiming that democratic ideal should motivate us to overcome them. Modern technology allows us to revisit the idea of a ‘peoples parliament’ and the benefits would be immediate.

Imagine how different the Australian political landscape would be if issues characterized by immense public support for change, but sluggish policy by the major political parties were progressed through plebiscite.  Would we have achieved marriage equality, would we have improved public transport, a meaningful resource rent tax, action on climate change, would we still have a tampon tax? Action in the form of change or reform around these issues would be rapid and popular. Not weighed down by the power of vocal and effective minority lobby groups.

But there will be many challenges to this democratic paradigm. Apart from vested interests of the current parties that occupy positions of power, large philosophical hurdles must be overcome. Would we self-destruct in a frenzy of self-interested tax cuts? Would the tragedy of the commons undermine all that is good about open democracy?  We think not. Take the debate about the parental leave scheme as an example. The lukewarm reception to Tony Abbott’s former paid parental leave policy reveals that the public is capable of sophisticated responses. The desire for resources to be directed to childcare rather than generous direct payments to parents suggests a preference for measures that allow parents to maintain their productive contributions to society.

There would be many technical and practical challenges. Not everybody is connected to the new digital age. How would we ensure that non-technology savvy people aren’t left behind in the new democracy? Finding ways of allowing everybody to contribute to the people’s parliament without having to visit the ballot box on a weekly basis is a challenge that must be overcome. Which issues are big enough to warrant a public vote, and which are small enough to be entrusted to the executive? Obviously we want a people’s parliament, not a people’s bureaucracy, so drawing the line between major political issues and the day-to-day business of government is a tough challenge. Who decides which issues go to a public vote, who will be our head of state?

The answer is that we cannot completely do away with elected representatives. We would still need a regular electoral cycle to allow the public to eject the executive if they are not sending the right issues out to plebiscite at the right frequency. But imagine if our elections were about this, rather than about whether or not we should ‘stop the boats’!  It is time to totally re-set the political compass and renew our democracy with a digitally enhanced people’s parliament.

The biggest challenge to all of this, or course, is getting politicians to vote it in.