Can Social Media Become an Agent of Conservation?

The following is an essay I wrote after watching “An Inconvenient Truth” while preparing to lead a class discussion on climate change. I think it neatly sums up why I do the things I do and is the first in a series of essays about using social media to effect real change for conservation.

I come to you today with what may seem like a radical concept. I admit that I have what some may consider a unique perspective on conservation, so what I want to do is to back up a little bit and tell you a little bit about how I came to feel this way.

As a child, I had a couple of events happen to my family that forever changed the way I looked at the world. When I was eleven years old, my house was destroyed by a tornado. This may not seem incredibly out of the norm for a weather event but the reason I say it began a shift was that I was living in suburban Marietta, Georgia at the time. Another factor is that I was home at the time and actually was right in the middle of my house being pummeled from all directions by a force that both terrified and awed me with its sheer power. We lost everything, except our lives. Yes that was traumatic, but what was even more traumatic, was what happened next. Of all the crazy things about that freak storm, this had to be the most bizarre. Despite our home being in ruins, the flattened street in clear view from the wreckage, the phone that was in our kitchen still had a dial tone. My father called 911. And this is where it gets even more interesting. The operator accused my father of making a crank call and hung up on him.

Let me fast forward a year or so. While on vacation to Lake Hartwell, my family decided to spend the night out in the lake on the houseboat we had rented. During the evening we received a distress call from another houseboat. They had hit a submerged stump and were slowly taking on water. They had a seven month old baby on board with them. You could hear the panic in their voices. The law enforcement guys from the area came on the radio and assured them they would be fine, that the houseboats were designed to take a little damage and that they would be okay until the sun came up when they could navigate back to the docks. I have never forgotten the words he told this frightened couple – “There is no way those boats will sink.” The man on board was a little skeptical and the LE guys gave them the option of attempting to beach the houseboat, which even to me, a twelve year old child, sounded ridiculous. The man cut off contact for a bit. My father paced a bit before hailing him on the radio. Turns out they were not far from us and with the help of a very bright spot light, the couple was able to hook up with us and come aboard. I gladly gave up my bunk for the exhausted little girl and her parents. The next morning, we stood in shock as only a foot or so of the boat remained above water.  Had they stayed aboard and gone to bed, they very easily could have drowned. An incorrect assumption that things would be as they always had been could have cost three people their lives.

So what does all of this have to do with conservation, natural resources and climate change? I’m getting there I promise.

Both of my childhood situations were made more difficult by one primary factor, human perception. These incidents helped my young mind begin to understand that people do not act rationally or logically most of the time.  We make decisions based on our unique life view, what we know to be true, in part based on the many events that have happened to us, our perceptions. We as humans also naturally look for the path of least resistance. Nobody wants to make their life harder than it has to be. Rather than consider what might be, we would rather slip back into the comfort zone of what we know, or rather what we think we know.

“1500 years ago, everybody knew that the Earth was the center of the universe. 500 years ago, everybody knew that the Earth was flat. And 15 minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.” – Tommy Lee Jones (MIB 1997)

While I am not convinced that aliens live among us, I am fascinated by human behavior, in essence, why we do what we do. In trying to find my way in the world I bounced around some, psychology, sociology, education before settling on public relations and journalism.  Why? It seemed to me that both PR and journalism encompassed a little bit of all of the things I found fascinating. Story-telling, human behavior, trends, education, shifts in belief. I saw something in that method of communication that spoke to me, something that at the time seemed radical to me but intrigued me none the less. I wondered if I could channel this vehicle, if I could somehow continue my environmental and human rights advocacy work but with an entirely new focus. Could I use the tools and ideas learned from public relations to try and save the planet? I was called crazy. Everyone wanted to work for Coke, Procter & Gamble, the Finance sector, etc. I was told that I would never be successful, never be able to support my growing family. (I was almost six months pregnant with my third child when I graduated from college.) I felt differently.

I decided that I wanted to be a part of the Conservation Ecology and Sustainable Development program at the University of Georgia because although I believe in the science and the numbers, the facts if you will, I also believe that the science alone will not save us. Our planet’s main inhabitants, humans, are a highly reactive and emotional race. Individuals and organizations all over the world have made great strides, bringing us a long way in the process, but as a collective, we still have a long way to go.

“If Facebook were a country, it would be the fourth largest.”

Let me shift gears for a moment now and draw your attention to social media. Social media represents one of the greatest shifts in communications and human perception since the invention of the printing press.  It is transforming the way we live, do business and even survive.

I began to ask myself, how better to get through to people than by using something that is having such a dramatic shift in basic fundamental beliefs .

Have you ever been so passionate about something, so focused that everything else just fades away? Al Gore summed this up perfectly when talking about his son’s accident in the documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth”.  He said, “How should I spend my time on this Earth?” The life-threatening accident put the trivial into perspective.

Maybe I’m not making a fortune, but what I’m doing may have a profound effect on those that come behind me, my children, their friends, our collective descendants.

When Gore’s documentary was made, there was still a large controversy surrounding climate change. It was called a hoax, a fraud. Gore was called crazy. He stood by his convictions. It almost seems laughable, four years later with what we know now to think that climate change was ever considered “the biggest hoax ever perpetrated upon the American people.”

Let me go back for a moment to that tornado and the 911 operator. As my family huddled together, coated with blow-in insulation and misty February rain, what delayed the help we needed was that operator’s “knowledge” of the area, the weather reports, and what she knew to be true for storm history in the area. But in fact, she was wrong. The year after my neighborhood was ripped to the ground, the county purchased tornado sirens. When they were being constructed, some people complained. The towers were ugly, expensive and the majority of people felt they were unnecessary. There was a newspaper article that came out that explained to baffled county residents that even though the storm seemed to be a freak thing, it would be better for everyone if they were prepared in the future. Fourteen months after that first storm, the unthinkable occurred. I was at school when the sirens went off. My heart sank because somehow I knew. It ripped through my neighborhood and then hopped over the highway to exert wrath upon two other subdivisions and a trailer park. Two people died. When my mom called the school that afternoon, I knew. My teacher assured me that everything would be alright, that lightning simply didn’t strike twice. She was wrong. Although the damage was nowhere near as severe as before, it was simply incredible that it had hit the same homes two years in a row. Our brand new construction now had splintered gaps where the back porch had been, most of the pine trees lay on the ground, our camper turned upside down and smashed. People were amazed. This type of thing had never been a problem where we lived. This was new, and perception-changing.

It was only the start and there have now been regular tornadoes every few years around the state, both destructive and deadly. Things don’t stay the same because we want them too or even because we think they should. People’s views on climate change are like that. People who spend their time listening to radical pundits like Rush Limbaugh and firmly believe that global warming is a myth are in my opinion, desperately clinging to their outdated beliefs, not because they give credence to them, but rather out of fear. Fear of the dramatic shifts we are seeing all across the world. Social justice, climate change, human rights, war etc.

Those rabidly outspoken few, however misinformed, are not the scariest though. It is those who concede and say okay, yes the world is heating up, but who cares? There’s not much we can do about it anyway right? Those people are the ones I strive to understand. I have this idea that if I can just figure out what is going on in their heads that maybe I can change their mind. Isn’t that what advertising, commercials, PR, government and media have been doing ever since Edward Bernays, the father of modern public relations first spoke about the power of influence and public perception?

Okay, I don’t come from an incredibly strong scientific background. However, as I stated before, science alone can’t save us, which I think is the reason this master’s program is so popular. The teachers remind us that we must look beyond the numbers, to human behavior, community, economics, culture, media influence, etc. if we are to really and truly make a difference in the way we work to conserve what we have left and to make responsible and practical management plans that actually work. To repeat Gore, “What we take for granted might not be here for our children.” We can’t assume blindly that our actions however small, have no effect on the larger world. We can’t ignore what is happening all around us.

“No one can do everything, but everyone can do something” – WE ADD UP 2009

I was told that the climate change debate is an ethical, moral and philosophical issue and I agree. I only need look around to see that our world is consumed with the trivial, the superficial and the irrelevant. Why? Maybe I am crazy, and overly sensitive, but when I see trash on the road, people with fifty plastic grocery sacks, or people refusing to believe that all species have the right to exist, I feel physically ill.

I was hired only about six months after I graduated college, by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, as a public affairs specialist, a job I continue to hold. What I have learned has taken my breath away, has made the trivial insignificant. I learned through practical experience what amazing resources we have on this planet. I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t learned this before and as a new “recruit” I couldn’t understand why others wouldn’t find it as awe-inspiring as I did.

I made up my mind that I would make a difference, somehow. I dove in to education, greedily devouring everything I could on why people behave as they do when it comes to conservation. I wanted to understand the concept of “buy in” and what is the determining factor that either makes an individual, organization or industry finally say, ok, we will work with you. I wanted to know if in fact there was a way to accurately measure behaviors so we could see where the change occurs.

“People play various roles in their own lives and take on different personalities depending on where they are or with whom they are interacting. People have their work personas that are much different from their nightlife personas, which in turn are different from their family personas and so on.

The same holds true for corporations; on one hand, a company donates millions to save-the-planet-type funds, but on the other hand, they dump millions of gallons of toxic waste into the clean water supply.

The transparency and speed of information flow caused by social media mitigates this type of social schizophrenic behavior. What does this mean for companies and individuals?” – Erik Qualman (Socialnomics 2009)

I ask, what does this mean for those fighting for conservation?  Will social media help improve transparency enough to actually change behavior? I think so. That is what I want to find out.