DO YOU BUILD SUPPORT FOR CONSERVATION?
February 7, 2010
trying to gain public support for an environmental project or legislation,
do not refer to it as "a landscape scale conservation plan that will
be good for the environment and for biodiversity while controlling urban
sprawl and creating green jobs." According to a recent poll, all
those terms"landscape scale conservation, environment, biodiversity,
urban sprawl, green jobs"are on the list of "words to
loves a poll. But here is a caveat when you read poll results: do the
questions themselves encourage respondents to answer in a certain way?
In other words, is the poll (and therefore the conclusions drawn from
it) biased? "The Language of Conservation: How to Communicate Effectively
to Build Support for Conservation" is a report based on a poll that
seems to be quite unbiased.
Conservancy commissioned a bipartisan (I like it already) research team
that included two public opinion firms, one Democratic, one Republican.
David Metz, with Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz and Associates, conducted
the study from the Democratic perspective, working with Lori Weigel of
the firm Public Opinion Strategies on the Republican side of the house.
Both firms approved the final survey, so odds are it can be trusted and
is not slanted to get a particular response from interviewees. Not surprisingly,
the Nature Conservancy wants to encourage people to support certain conservation
efforts. Knowing what phrases to use in print materials (e.g., ads, letters,
and posters) and in verbal presentations is critical for success. Based
on the survey, recommendations are given "for communicating effectively
to build support for conservation."
the public respond in a negative way to the terms noted above, as well
as to "regulation, endangered species, and ecosystem services,"
which are also listed in the words-to-avoid column? Are people getting
weary of some of the basic terms ecologists use when discussing the natural
environment? Are the phrases beginning to sound like mere conservation
rhetoric, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing? Perhaps. But part
of the problem may also lie in a lack of understanding. For example, one
conclusion from the survey is that "concepts such as 'biodiversity'
are relatively unfamiliar and do not resonate" with most people.
That came as a surprise to me. I thought most people did have a basic
sense of what "biodiversity" means. But a lot of effort went
into creating, administering, and interpreting the poll, so maybe I'm
At the end
of the report two side-by-side columns list "words to use" and
"words to avoid." For example, "land, air, and water"
are okay. People like to hear that instead of "environment,"
and they like "natural areas" instead of "ecosystems."
"Fish and wildlife" was judged more desirable than "endangered
species" or "biodiversity," although none of those are
synonymous. Some words that were suggested as best to avoid, such as "riparian"
and "aquifer," seemed to me simply to indicate a lack of education
by much of the public about their meaning. The poll suggests using the
words "land along lakes, rivers, and streams" and "groundwater"
in their place.
asked to rank various conservation goals to find out what people generally
consider most important. "Water" won out; "wildlife"
was a popular choice as well. One of the pollsters' recommendations was
that in discussing conservation plans with the public, "water,"
as well as related terms like "water quality" and "water
supplies," should be mentioned a lot.
groups (if I may use this no-no term) might want conservation agendas
to be aggressively promoted without resorting to euphemisms. But word
choice matters. People who are trying to garner support for an issue should
always consider which words will best help get their point across. And
which words will be detrimental to their cause. Why should conservationists
the word "ecology" nor "ecologist" appears anywhere
in the poll results. I don't know why those words were omitted, but I
guess it means ecologists don't have to start calling themselves "scientists
concerned with the interrelationship between organisms and the land, air,
and water that make up their natural areas."
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