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Ocean Optimism and Aliens

Ripley: How long after we’re declared overdue can we expect a rescue?

Hicks: … Seventeen days.

Hudson: Seventeen days? Hey man, I don’t wanna rain on your parade, but we’re not gonna last seventeen hours! Those things are gonna come in here just like they did before. And they’re gonna come in here…

Ripley: Hudson!

Hudson: …and they’re gonna come in here AND THEY’RE GONNA GET US!

Ripley: Hudson! This little girl survived longer than that with no weapons and no training. Right?

[Newt salutes]

Hudson: Why don’t you put her in charge?

Ripley: You better just start dealing with it, Hudson! Listen to me! Hudson, just deal with it, because we need you and I’m sick of your #@&%#$!

Aliens (1986; 20th Century Fox)

 

At the recent International Marine Conservation Congress, one of the buzzwords was #oceanoptimism (eg see this blog). This hashtag was launched on World’s Ocean’s Day (8th June) this year, and has subsequently gone somewhat viral. But why is “ocean optimism” such a big deal?

There was a concern among many marine conservationists that the situation in the world’s oceans is so dire, and the message given by marine scientists is so bleak, that the constant negativity portrayed by marine scientists will lead to the public turning off, and/or conservation practitioners feeling that they were working against insurmountable odds. There are numerous articles on this topic in the scientific literature (e.g. this). The fact that the media often concentrates on the controversial and disastrous to sell a story can often exacerbate problems   (e.g. this and this) especially when worst case scenarios do not happen (often because a conservation intervention occurred) and scientists are portrayed as being over negative Eeyores and crying wolf on environmental issues.

The idea of portraying a more positive marine conservation message was not new – there was program called Beyond the Obituaries: Success Stories in Ocean Conservation at the 1st International Marine Conservation Congress in 2009  (click here for a video of the event).

However, the quest and insistence for more optimism and positive messaging in conservation could lead to problems.  For example the upcoming World Parks Congress is specifically looking for positive messages for protected area management.  This has led to concerns by many that by filtering out the negative presentations to concentrate on the positive, it may make the situation seem better than it really is. Especially in a venue where agencies and governments are presenting their “success stories”, their inactivity, failures and downright disasters may be overlooked and downplayed.

There is also the danger that filtering out all but the positive messages -and being overly optimistic -could be used by “the bad guys” to argue that the conservationists are just being overly negative. For example, developers who claim that a destroyed ecosystem could easily be “fixed” with a replacement wetland or a protected area, like they found claimed in a scientific paper. Or politicians stating that there are plenty of polar bears left because a local population is doing well (a prime example of this can be found here). So there is as much danger if scientists bias their work with too positive a message, as with biasing with too negative a message.

But why the Aliens quote at the beginning of this article?

Well the whole idea about “ocean optimism” is not to be like Hudson but rather more like Ripley , to help empower marine conservationists and give hope to the public despite – as far as the marine environment is concerned – being faced by many diverse and weighty problems and threats.

However, if one filters out all but the positive success stories, there is the danger of modern conservation being perceived as this with everything being fine and dandy, with governments and agencies doing an excellent job at conservation, when the actual situation is substantively different.

So for promoting conservation optimism and hope we need less of this  and more of thisand of thisand of thisand especially this!

alien transformed

Acknowledgements

Many thanks to Brett Favaro for spurring me to write this blog, and for providing suggestions some of the youtube clips. Also  for distracting me so much that I didn’t complete any of my to-do-list today and instead spent way too much time looking for video clips of aliens.


Dr. Chris Parsons has been involved in whale and dolphin research for over two decades and has been involved in projects on every continent. Dr. Parsons is an Associate Professor at George Mason University as well as the undergraduate coordinator for their environmental science program. He’s a member of the scientific committee of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), has been involved in organizing four of the International Marine Conservation Congresses (IMCC) (the world’s largest academic marine conservation conference) and two of the International Congresses for Conservation Biology. He was a Governor of the Society for Conservation Biology for nearly a decade and is currently on the Board of Directors of the American Cetacean Society and the Society for Marine Mammalogy. In addition, Dr. Parsons has published over 120 scientific papers and book chapters and has written a textbook on marine mammal biology & conservation.


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