Why do we keep trying to “educate the people,” even if it doesn’t work? That’s the question in my mind as our Environmental Engagement class discusses three different models of environmental communication this coming week:
- The deficit model, perhaps the default model in environmental communication, which assumes our primary goal is to combat a deficit of environmental knowledge (more bluntly, ignorance), and in so doing to motivate appropriate actions.
- The framing model, a step above the deficit model in sophistication, where you are still trying to raise awareness and motivate action, but via a culturally appropriate frame sensitive to your audience.
- The dialogic model, where (shock!) environmental communication is a two-way street, and where perhaps both of you change your minds in the process.
No matter how many reams of scholarly research suggest limitations in the deficit model (see that linked page above), it still seems to be taken for granted as environmentalists decide how to engage with their fellow humans. What are these limitations? Certainly there are lots of ways in which public knowledge is not up to what we’d like it to be. But, surprise!, most people are so inundated with facts—many of them contradictory—that they tend to turn down the volume, and even when they acquire new knowledge there’s no guarantee at all that this will result in changes in action, for a variety of intuitive reasons.
A provisional answer to my question: perhaps the whole notion of “educate the people” is ubiquitous, far bigger than just environmental outreach—go ahead and Google it, and you’ll see all sorts of results. And maybe this notion is more about reinforcing our own social identities (as the people with the facts, whatever those facts may be) than doing effective communication…because there’s plenty of evidence that it’s not the latter.
The featured image for this post comes from the 2011 Brunei Press calendar, one of countless examples of environmental outreach, in this case designed
to educate the people of the facts about the Global environmental situation through images / illustrations.
The facts in this case include e.g.
It takes 500 years for plastics and aluminium cans to break down
The 20th century was the warmest century of the last 1000 years
I’d be curious: who purchased this calendar and put it up on their wall? Possibly those who, by this action, reinforced how they view themselves, i.e., as people with environmental knowledge and concern, and people who are taking action on these concerns.
There’s nothing sinister about all this; it is not some conspiracy of misinformation. I suspect that if we looked carefully at the environmental knowledge being propagated via deficit-model forms of communication, it would be mostly correct. The point is that it’s not effective, and perhaps more to the point of environmental engagement, it presumes a one-way flow of information from us to them.
What we’re doing in our ENVS Program is different: we don’t presume that everyone possesses equal expertise, but we do presume that everyone is worth listening to, and maybe in those more dialogic forms of interaction we can witness more lasting change on both sides.