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Helping Nature Rebound: Enabling People to See The Invisible

Posted by on Thursday, March 21, 2024 in Blog, RPW Fellows, Undergraduate.

Andrew Kyung is a 2023-24 Humanities in the Real World Fellow. 

Human beings are impatient creatures. We seek immediate results when taking action, which may have benefited our ancestors millennia ago when harrowing problems necessitated a swift, gung-ho response. Our tendency to look for immediate and tangible results from drastic action persists today. In an age where information is instantly transmittable and data is easily collectible, one would assume that results should be immediately visible. When they are not, it is tempting to doubt the methods used. However, as humanity tackles increasingly convoluted issues, it is helpful and perhaps necessary to reevaluate this impulse.

Immediacy and an Endangered Environment

Glass globe on layer of green moss on dirt in forestOne such issue is how humanity’s destructive capabilities have endangered our environment. As we attempt to manage the fallout of our recklessness, our impatience undermines our productivity. If we only consider natural restoration efforts effective when the results are immediately apparent, we may overlook a more gradual solution. The recuperation of flora and fauna is a tedious task that involves cooperation between government and citizens. Amidst this, the responsibility of galvanizing the public falls largely on public servants. This presents policymakers with a challenge: to convince their constituents that it is valuable to assist nature’s rebound even if it does not immediately provide tangible benefits. 

Helping the environment rebound requires policymakers to invest money, capital, and labor. While elected policymakers in a representative government can enact such a mobilization of resources, they must gather public support to maintain their constituents’ faith. Since conservation efforts are typically either preventative or not immediately visible, their benefits can often be intangible, which makes public support difficult to amass. Therefore, the issue of helping nature rebound is destined to be contested in a well-functioning democracy.  

The Ozone Layer and Galvanizing the Public

Galvanizing the public to undertake the global challenge of natural restoration demands that we derive a political communications strategy fromView of part of earth from space with ozone layer similar successful efforts. In 1985, the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) discovered that the ozone layer – an atmospheric layer protecting the Earth from harmful ultraviolet radiation – was being damaged by the world’s frequent use of chlorofluorocarbons. The BAS notified the British government and warned that further depletion of the ozone layer would wreak havoc on the Earth’s surface. Understanding that the problem would require collective action, the British government alerted the international community about the imminent threat.

Despite the obvious necessity for safeguards, a barrier to successful policy implementation existed: the public would need to be convinced that it was a worthwhile effort. No citizen could see or touch the ozone layer, and few people understood what it was. Furthermore, actions to assist the ozone layer’s rebound would not provide a tangible benefit to citizens; rather, the act would be a preventive measure with invisible results. The absence of public awareness and the lack of a tangible benefit called for a global, two-pronged campaign of education and good-faith persuasion.  

Preserving the ozone layer soon became one of the most discussed issues in government and the media. The constant discussion of the issue made people well aware of what the ozone layer does for the planet. Projections of what could happen if the ozone layer were depleted – global famine, ecological destruction, higher cancer rates – deeply concerned citizens of the world. A subsequent strategy of education and good-faith persuasion held every nation accountable for using ozone-depleting substances and the grim future that their practices would yield. By September 1987, a critical mass of support for an ozone-preservation policy had been reached. The Montreal Protocol was signed by all 198 parties of the United Nations, making it the first universally ratified treaty in the United Nation’s history. The treaty pledged to phase out ozone-depleting substances, and since its passage, the ozone layer has successfully rebounded from its jeopardized status.  

Education and Good-Faith Persuasion

Today, the environment is in peril. Governments and NGOs have implemented conservation efforts, but further investment of resources is essential to prevent the world’s most precious resources from destruction. Expanding these efforts involves an effective political communications strategy, and the optimistic story of the Montreal Protocol demonstrates how education and good-faith persuasion are the two most essential ingredients in political communications. Maintaining effective education is a balancing act that must prioritize providing learners with tools for coming to their own conclusions rather than dry instructions.

It also involves creating better misinformation detectors to prevent the public from being deceived by blatant falsehoods. Good-faith persuasion requires creating more avenues for trusted research groups, policymakers, and citizens to engage with each other; such an avenue enabled the BAS to sound the alarm in 1985. Ozone depletion is no longer imminent, but new threats such as deforestation, air pollution, and species extinction will continue to test our ability to protect what is most precious. 

Offering Hope

Road through a green forest with the word start at the bottom of the roadEducation and good-faith persuasion are certainly conducive components to an effective environmental restoration strategy. However, neither component would be sufficient unless the framing of the issue fundamentally changes. Contrary to what some suggest about climate change, we are not all doomed. Given rational tools, people can make rational decisions. Catastrophizing the issue guides us further into despair, and eventually, total apathy. Conversely, a framing strategy that tells the truth — that people’s collective action can salvage the environment — allows education and persuasion to work.

Amidst the cacophony of today’s political climate, it can seem impossible for the entire world to agree on anything. The ambitious mission to restore the environment is already a logistically challenging problem made even more difficult by its dependence on global public support. If we are successful in preserving the environment, the fruits of our labor may appear in unnoticeable ways: how would one be able to appreciate that mass extinction did not happen?

Preserving the environment is fundamentally driven by a necessity to manage risk — to prevent what would inevitably be a catastrophe. Therefore, a scenario in which we are successful in protecting the environment is one in which perhaps nothing happens at all. If our success does not yield a tangible prize, it may seem difficult to initiate this project. However, as exhibited by the Montreal Protocol decades ago and the subsequent rebound of the ozone layer, the right framing, education program, and persuasion strategy can mobilize the people of our entire planet for any worthwhile undertaking – even if that undertaking’s success is invisible to the naked eye.

Andrew Kyung is a junior from Demarest, New Jersey studying Political Science and American Studies. As an active researcher on campus, Andrew explores the relationship between social and political systems in the United States. The Humanities in the Real World fellowship presents Andrew the opportunity to further understand how the humanities can solve pressing political issues in America.