Quirks & Quarks·Analysis

A beacon of hope on World Oceans Day

Bob McDonald's blog: Social media movements focusing on conservation success stories may help restore motivation in the face of often negative news

Bob McDonald's blog: Conservation success stories could bring hope and motivate action

School children watch as volunteers of the Israeli sea turtle rescue centre free a Loggerhead sea turtle back to the Mediterranean sea. (File photo) (Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)

June 8th marks World Oceans Day which, when combined with the social media movements like #OceanOptimism or #EarthOptimism some researchers hope can bring a positive spin on the challenges in preserving and protecting our planet's seven seas

Environmental stories on the oceans are often negative, with reports of plastic litter floating in the garbage patch of the Pacific, microplastics in the water column all the way down to the deepest part of the Mariana Trench, acidification from the extra carbon dioxide being pumped into the atmosphere, bleaching of coral reefs, pollution, overfishing… it can be downright depressing. 

In fact, when children's author and University of Victoria adjunct professor Elin Kelsey presented environmental stories to young people, she found it induced stress and anxiety in the children as they became fearful about their own future. 

Indeed anyone, including science journalists, can become discouraged after hearing about humanity's impact on the planet and the public can become "enviro-weary" because of all the negative news.

While a little bit of stress can help move people to take action, psychologists say once we pass a certain stress threshold, extreme emotional responses can "interfere with our ability to think rationally, plan our behaviour, and consider alternative actions."

Birth of a conservation success movement

To counter the fears and feelings of hopelessness about the future, Kelsey, along with coral reef biologist Nancy Knowlton of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, and marine biologist Heather Koldewey of the Zoological Society of London worked with Elisabeth Whitebread, a global marine community organizer, to organize a workshop to brainstorm for ways they could engage people in marine conservation by focusing on successes. 

Together at that workshop, they created Ocean Optimism as a Twitter initiative in 2014 to highlight the positive side of environmental research and encourage young people to become involved in conservation. Since its launch, the #OceanOptimism hashtag has reached more than 95 million shares on Twitter, and inspired other "optimism" conservation movements.

Knowlton, one of the co-founders of Ocean Optimism, went on to launch "Earth Optimism" in 2017, which has since led to over 60 Earth Optimism Summit gatherings, including this year's summit on Earth Day when people on more than 55,000 devices in over 70 countries tuned in to watch live streamed presentations. 

The #OceanOptimism social media movement has also grown, with campaigns including #EarthOptimism, #ConservationOptimism and #ClimateOptimist. The idea is to show how actions by groups large and small can have positive effects on the environment, and also provide a sense of hope for the future.

Scientists from the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science are part of a world wide response to try and save the marine invertebrates from the unprecedented bleaching of coral that is taking place around the world. (File photo) (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Individuals and hope can make a difference

Of course, this is not to deny the fact that there are still very serious global threats to the oceans, such as acidification due to climate change, which more than half can be traced back to major industrial carbon producers.

But rather than face the problem as an almost insurmountable challenge, these groups suggest small steps by a large number of people can make a difference. 

We are currently witnessing the effect of individuals working together in large numbers to affect change as the world fights against the spread of COVID-19 by adopting social distancing and more diligent hand hygiene. Already, some regions are seeing recovery thanks to people cooperating to modify our lifestyles and protect ourselves from  a common threat to our health. 

Can a similar social change be used to protect and preserve the environment? 

A boy poses with a 9.1-metre-long whale made of 40,000 abandoned plastic bottles designed to bring attention to ocean pollution problem. (VCG/Getty Images)

Environmental challenges can seem daunting and depressing, which can lead to a feeling of, "How can I possibly make a difference when the problem is so huge?" 

It is like being stuck in a traffic jam, where it is frustrating when everything comes to a complete stop and you worry about getting to your destination on time. But every time the vehicles ahead move forward even a little bit, it feels good because you are at least making some progress and it raises the hope that you will be out of it soon.

Hearing success stories from around the world of individuals and organizations that are taking small steps to make a difference in environmental protection can create a sense that some progress is being made to tackle the problems. And perhaps it can provide some incentive to take action yourself and a sense of hope for young people and their future.

In other words, hope might go a long way right now. 



Bob McDonald is the host of CBC Radio's award-winning weekly science program, Quirks & Quarks. He is also a science commentator for CBC News Network and CBC-TV's The National. He has received 12 honorary degrees and is an Officer of the Order of Canada.