Is it time to change the ocean’s story?

Underwater picture of the ocean with a shark and fishes swimming past
Image from Kristin Hettermann | Grace Delivers
Nicky Hawkins
by Nicky Hawkins
22 January 2020

Last year felt like the year the world woke up to the harm we’re inflicting on our planet.

Young people rose up, forests burned (and continue to burn) around the globe, and the suffocating ocean finally began to grab the attention of the world's media. 

Here in the UK, The Guardian updated its editorial guidelines to favour the term ‘climate crisis’ over the more innocuous sounding ‘climate change.’ Language matters – the choices we make when we talk about the ocean matter.

This was the conclusion of a new study by my colleagues at The FrameWorks Institute. The research looked at the UK public’s attitude toward the ocean. Our team of researchers measured how different words and ideas affect people’s thinking. With 2020 set to be a crucial year for environmental advocacy and action, it’s essential to build public will for ocean protection. This research shows how we can do this, and offers valuable insights for those who care deeply about the ocean and talk about it daily.

Firstly, we found that people struggle to see and appreciate the grave harm human activity is inflicting on the ocean. Typically, most people don’t connect problems in the ocean with the planet’s overall functioning. Regular exposure to all kinds of stories and legends have entrenched a belief that the ocean is other-worldly and self-sustaining. So, when people are aware of problems, they often assume they’re superficial, isolated or of little lasting consequence. 

To inspire the sea change needed to protect the ocean this year, we need to start telling a new story.

It’s all too easy to get stuck in a story about the ocean that perpetuates this idea. Awesome tales of the ocean’s wonder won’t get people to connect the dots. Neither will the media’s focus on ocean plastics. We found that talking about health – the ocean’s health and its relationship to human health – can help overcome this. Explicitly likening the planet to a body with interconnected and interdependent systems and elements helps people to see how this really works and why it matters.

colourful sealife
Image from Wolcott Henry

When it comes to talking about our planet, there’s often an assumption that the primary task is to raise awareness by sounding the alarm bell loudly. Our research reveals the limitations of this approach. Awareness of problems doesn’t automatically lead to support for action and solutions. In fact, it often backfires as people can become fatalistic, despondent or simply tune out. Telling the story of ocean health deepens people’s understanding. They can see not just that there are problems but why there are problems. 

A treatment plan – not just a grim prognosis – must feature in the stories we tell about the ocean. To boost support for the policy changes we so desperately need, we must avoid pushing people into fatalism or fatigue. Using down to earth language to specify how we can heal and cure the ocean gets people on board with the prescription for change. 

The new story of ocean health and healing bears repeating. We all need to hear ideas multiple times for them to become lodged in our thinking. We have all heard many, many times that the ocean is unknowable and untouchable. To establish better understanding of the value of the ocean and to galvanise the action needed to protect it, we need to drip-feed the ocean health story throughout 2020 and beyond. 

Stories are important. They shape how we think and act. They can ignite and sustain change or lock us in the status quo. To inspire the sea change needed to protect our ocean this year, we need to start by telling a new story.  

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