The disconnect between so many people, living busy lives, and the natural world around them can be startling. Children who are unaware how milk gets onto their breakfast table in the morning (even to the point of not knowing that it comes from cows - yes, honestly); young adults who have never been for walk in a nature-rich area ("I've never seen a waterfall in real life" I was told); older people in denial about man-made climate change ("Oh, it's always gone on. Always will. Nothing we can do about it"). So, two questions: (1) why is environmental education such a turn-off? and (2) how can we get the message across more effectively?
The ways that we talk about the future of nature, of the planet's support systems, really do matter. Too often, attempts to draw attention to critical environmental challenges employ stories and images that are loaded with fear, appeals and alarmist rhetoric. These can engender a sense of hopelessness and despair.
"Britain faces climate change Armageddon within 30 years" - dramatic, but is it effective?
Faced with such overwhelming challenges, a common response is simply to do nothing.
So, should we frame our communications negatively or positively? This depends on the issue. Research shows that negative appeals can help to raise awareness and concerns, but it needs balance. Continually bombarding people with negative messages after you've raised awareness will result in them just switching off.
Positive appeals are crucial after awareness is raised. After the huge success of the BBC's Blue Planet 2, people have been given practical, real life actions to take on plastics. clearly, communication needs to be action-oriented. We must encourage and empower communities by offering them options of what they might do to make a difference.
It's an easy step to invest in an alternative to damaging single-use plastic water bottles
However, not all positive messages succeed. They need to resonate with people if they are to be successful. Few people are fortunate enough to experience the beauty of a tropical rainforest or see a humpback whale; luckily, many are yet to have first-hand experience of catastrophic flooding.
The challenge is to appeal to our sense of altruism and justice (social and environmental), accepting that nature and the environment are complicated cultural concepts; not everyone sees the world like I do (as I constantly need to remind myself). To address this, it is important to create a sense of connection and empathy.
Community-based initiatives, such as Peterborough's Green Backyard, offer local, convenient and welcoming places for people to get involved - at their pace, on their terms
The idea of 'wayfinding' offers strategies for engaging with nature and mobilising people. This requires us to understand how they make decisions: what motivates them? what considerations come into play? It strikes me that 'nature on your doorstep' is key to all of this: somewhere that you can visit nearby, that means something to you, in which you feel a sense of collective ownership. The journey that many people experience from starting out as a volunteer, for example, to becoming a committed and aware advocate for the environment, is something special to witness.
Volunteer effort - such as this at Peterborough's Railworld Wildlife Haven - can establish vibrant community learning spaces, attracting engagement from businesses and the wider public; and helping to make the connection to bigger environmental challenges
Ultimately, we should get active rather than depressed. There is a growing body of evidence of the benefits from Green Gyms, the Transition Network, and other initiatives; these are positive steps that do engage communities to come together, even in areas of both social and environmental deprivation. Yes, it can be done!
Offer people positive reasons to engage, rather than make them feel powerless to act. Reconnection is not just possible; it's addictive. But don't just take my word for it.
Inner-city growing spaces can soon become vital hubs for more cohesive communities, where reconnection with nature and learning are embedded