by Whit Gibbons

February 7, 2010

If you're 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 avoid."

Everybody 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.

The Nature 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."

Why would 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 wrong.

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.

Voters were 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.

Some environmental 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 be different?

Neither 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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