24 May 2019

By Marina Joubert

Caring for nature is all about people. Changing human behaviour is very complex. If you want people to change their behaviour, giving them lots of information won’t get the job done. You also need to understand their values, emotions, feelings and motivations, since these factors shape how they respond to our communication efforts.

These were the key messages I took away from a #scicomm workshop at WWF SA (Newlands, Cape Town) today (Friday 24 May 2019). Guided by Dr Judy Mann-Lang and Pavs Pillay, 30 scientists and science communicators were challenged to think about our environmental communication efforts in a new, scientific way. We focused on tackling the challenge of effective communication which would effect pro-environmental behaviour change.

Judy is a conversation strategist at the South African Association for Marine Biological Research and Pavs is the manager of the South African Sustainable Seafood Initiative at WWF SA.

We’ve spent a huge amount of time and effort studying the prey in our ecosystems, but we have spent very little time studying the predator – and that is all of us, Judy explained. “That is why I decided that my new study species would be Homo sapiens.”

Judy explained how her research was based on a myriad of theories of behaviour and understanding the psychological aspects of communication. But, she added, we can also learn from the successes achieved by health communication campaigns such as anti-smoking campaigns.

When we provide people with lots of information about the problems in our environment, we rely on the outdated assumption that bombarding people with facts will change their attitudes, which will also change their behaviour. More recent research provides compelling evidence that information (on its own) is not enough. People’s values and motivations determine how they respond to information, and, despite good intentions, there are many barriers that prevent people from changing their own behaviour.

Judy talked about a new buzz phrase known as “community-based social marketing”. While many environmentalists may think of ‘marketing’ as a dirty word, we can learn much from what marketers do and how successful they are, as long as we apply those lessons ethically and responsibly, Judy added.

We know now that being in nature and feeling connected to nature are key predictors of pro-environmental behaviour, she explained. Therefore, I believe that we need to go back to the idea of taking people into nature and giving them hands-on experiences of our natural world.

In her talk, Pavs also focused on the importance of understanding your audience and their interests and values, which will determine what motivates them to change their behaviour. Make it easy for your audience to make the change you are asking of them by using simple language and making it very clear, she urged. Telling people to ‘go green’ is meaningless, while ‘say no to straws’ is a clear and do-able call to action.