Updated: Nov 19, 2022
« Man is part of Nature, and each war against IT is inevitably a war against himself » reminded us Rachel Carson, the American biologist and zoologist, author of numerous books among which the best seller Silent Spring, 1962, traditionally classified as the first “global manifesto” of the Environmental Movement. Carson’s words hit for their modernity and communicative strength that links the semantic field of "war" to a diametrically opposite theme. The Environment has always been the “positive metaphor” of
life, survival, food, energy, biodiversity, future. A complex system, which we are an integral part of, that puts us in relationship with everything "around us" as it is suggested by the etymology itself from the Latin verb « ambire; ambiens - entis » (go around).
Each action made by us is influenced by natural phenomena and, in the same time, is able to influence the environment surrounding us: that "Ecosystem Earth" composed of living organisms and non-living substances strictly interwoven among themselves and able to interact.
How would the world be without the happy singing of the birds that, especially in springtime, rejoice our days? (inspired by Rachel Carson's 'Silent Spring')
This is the reflection starting point launched by Rachel Carson’s best seller to the world community, in an age characterised, in the western countries, by the “economic boom” and utmost industrialisation of the production processes, synonym of Welfare but also a source of "environmental pollution”.
The foundations were laid of that “quiet revolution” of the western thought projected towards a vision not anthropocentric anymore but holistic of the Planet Earth which will lead, some years later, to the birth of concept itself of Sustainable Development Note 1.
Beyond the historical fact just mentioned, what is surprising is the extraordinary strength
springing from the communicative act, whether it is aimed at influencing a small group of people (private communication) or to provide a public utility (public communication). A word, a picture, a video an info-graphic, a symbol, a logo and even an architectural structure or a design object are potential instruments, that is Media, of an “environmental message”.
Photo >> Environmental awareness campaign promoted by theEuropean Commission – © Ferdi Rizklyanto 2011
« Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t there», this is the concise message by a well-known awareness campaign promoted by the European Commission to catch the attention of UE citizens on the sea water pollution due to human nature (=anthropogenic), called by the term “marine litter” Note 2.
Although the written text explicitly does not refer to the “environmental criticality”, the reader is easily led to associate the message to the natural world. The image takes the audience into a dimension well-known to the majority for the very fact of having lived it personally. A shore, waves breaking onto it and the vastness of the seascape tell us to follow the line of the horizon. From the semiotic point of view, such a kind of situation brings feelings of wellbeing, relaxation, recreation , peace of mind and contact with a “pure Nature”. And this is not by chance. The communicators wanted to create an atmosphere known to a ”global audience” to increase the ''effective communication”. Communicating the Environment drawing the attention to issues that we can experience in our everyday life is one of the first aspects to take into account in order to be “efficient”.
But all that is not enough to draw the audience’s attention if verbal, visual or mixed elements are not introduced and being able to encourage the people to deepen the issues that underline a specific problem related to the Environment. Practically we must create something that always attracts “a great deal of attention” in our recipient of the message. This is not for selling a specific product or a service, main target of the “commercial marketing”, but to increase his level of “environmental awareness”.
The eco-communication and its “noises”.
Coming back to our example, the “magnet element” is, in this case, more visual than verbal. In the middle of the image/picture, a child, a synecdoche of the generation, the future Earth ecosystem heir, symbolically raises the sea surface as if it were a “natural blanket” hiding a “Pandora’s box” from which the effects of ''Human Impact on Environment” generate: a landfill lying on the seabed, where we can clearly identify some plastic bottles, that connote the broader problem of "waste disposal.
The “Communication process” that allows who creates the environmental message (addresser) to deliver it to the receiver (addressee) through the most appropriate forms and Media, depends on many factors that may influence significantly the final understanding or better its “echo-message decoding”.
The emotional reaction, namely the public’s perception to the awareness campaign, said above, furthermore may change according to a multiplicity of elements and situations such as: the degree of knowledge of environmental issues, any external influences linked to membership of a specific social group, the historical moment which we live in or even he physiological, psychological status and character of the recipient of the message,
The Environmental Communicator, then, cannot ignore a priori the potential "deviant factors" that threaten the correct understanding of the message in the process of its receipt. What is defined, at a semiotic and pragmatic level, an “interference in the communication”, or better a “noise”. This word takes a metaphorical meaning pointing out those factors that interfere in the "communicative process”.
Who communicates the Environment, furthermore, must deal with an “environmental language” full of technical terms and concepts, sometimes still under investigation, which therefore need to be explained to the public as objectively as possible. On this basis the European Environmental Agency has realised the encyclopaedic dictionary: Generalised Multilingual Environmental Thesaurus - GEMET Note 3 An authoritative organizational and cognitive system = “Knowledge Organization System” – KOS, able to increase the eco-awareness of a larger audience in the semantic area linked to the terms "Environment" and "Sustainable Development".
Not always, however, the environmental content transmitted by the Media are "qualified" or traceable, especially when they are conveyed by the World Network = “World Wide Web”.
The traditional Media and those of new generation Note 4 often associate the word "Environment” and “Sustainable Development" to some of the issues that threaten liveability of our Planet Earth: deforestation, ocean acidification, stratospheric ozone reductions, acid rain, melting glaciers, genetically modified organisms , to name but a few. But we cannot be confined to communicate the environment only in the emergency phase, although expression of the inalienable right to information, it could help, in case of exaggerated insistence regarding the tragic and catastrophic effects, to increase a sense of social malaise and generalized chronic pessimism. The Environmental Communication, on the contrary, should enhance the value of the positive aspects. More and more projects, best practices and actions in the field of : Green & Circular Economy, green marketing, eco-technologies, bio-architecture, eco-design,Sustainable art, nature and environmental photography, organic food, environmental and natural well-being, are being implemented.
Internet birth in 1991 and the Social Network (Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Instagram, LinkedIn, WhatsApp, etc.), in the following years, created a real “tsunami” impact on ’“information” and “ environmental communication” (Friedman, 2015). In this media jungle, the Search Engines and the Social Media influence the choices of Internauts, selecting news, information and multimedia elements. The Social Networking and Microblogging Note 5, in particular, have become the major sources of information due to their use in various fields.
Being present on the Web Network or on the Social Media, is it enough to give credit to the environmental message contents?
The question cannot have a totally positive response. Given that it would be wrong to generalize and consider unfounded a priori environmental messages posted online, to know how to choose the sources of reliable information than those unreliable is an essential target not always easy to realize. The “Media self-service” of the Web, in fact, transfer entirely on the individual Internaut the responsibility for the selection
of the contents to display and which ones to discard. The theme of the quality of information and the Environmental Communication is increasingly present in Italy Note 6.
The lack of a control organ (authority) that monitors the quality of the posted contents on the Web then increases the risk of "media hoaxes” or “greenwashing” Note 7 cases which continue to circulate in the network even when their truthfulness is denied.
Raising public awareness on environmental issues effectively does not mean, therefore, send alarmist or catastrophic spot messages, but knowing how to promote sustainable values and good eco-friendly practices through forms and communication tools able to “engage the public” and “arouse emotions”.
Giving a voice to the trees
60 + Earth Hour, the Environmental Awareness Campaign launched by WWF in 2007, for example, is based on a simple gesture, to turn off the light, connoting an ecologic meaning that involves the world community. By the willingness of the promoters-communicators themselves, this action takes a symbolic meaning of great influence: to fight climate change climate change. So on the 25th of March of each year, the whole world is mobilized to obscure, for an hour, the monuments symbol of "human civilization. A planned “black out” that turns "green” and that we all can join.
On a "gesture" as simple, but essential, is based a very recent project that puts the highest technology in the service of one of the most significant living beings of our ecosystem: the tree. The presence of green areas in urban places, in fact, today takes on an increasingly vital role in view of the extraordinary capacity
Pf those “green lungs” to absorb carbon dioxide (CO2) and other pollutants, and produce oxygen in return (O2).
Photo >> Treepedia draft ©MIT Senseable City Lab (software and logo details) – http://senseable.mit.edu/treepedia
On this basis, the researchers of the Seanseable City Lab - Massachusetts Institute of Technologies – MIT, a world excellence in terms of “environmentally friendly” technological innovation have developed the “Treepedia” project, in partnership with the “World Economic Forum" Note 8.
“I am convinced that the digital technologies can help us to develop a better relationship with the Environment in which we live”, Carlo Ratti, architect and engineer & director at the MIT Senseable City Lab.
“I am convinced that the digital technologies can help us to develop a better relationship with the Environment in which we live”, says with absolute conviction the engineer and architect Carlo Ratti, director of the renowned technology research laboratory. This virtual platform online, freely accessible, allows a real mapping of the tree canopies in some of the most significant urban centres Note 9 using a algorithm able to decipher the information processed by famous Google Street View Note 10. The Green View Index – GVI represents an innovative tool of communication that, providing comparable data, “gives voice” to the trees. The strong environmental message behind the project opens the doors to a social and open source Note 11 development of Treepedia that will allow Internet users-Citizens to live map the green areas of their cities.
The Environmental Communicator should not, in our opinion, never losing, his “educational role”, which thus becomes a privileged mediator between the general public and the "environmental experts” Note 12. This is more relevant when a teacher is asked to communicate the Environment. Both the educational and academic world are strongly influenced by the new forms of communication offered by the so-called "Web 2.0”. The interactivity, the universality, the multimedia and the simplicity of use of Social Media today is widely applied by students or researchers adapting capabilities to their needs for both "creating network" and for training purposes.
But are the digital scholars sufficiently prepared to collect the online information and environmental data that are both scientifically proven and not tied to vested interests? A very recent study conducted at international level by CIBER for The Scholarly Communications International Observatory – SCIO has shown that the “digital native” researchers (under 35 years old) mainly rely on the most popular search engines (e.g.: Google) and the most widespread Social Media (e.g.: Facebook, Twitter) find the suitable information to their education or research. But it has equally pointed out a generalized inability to be able to identify the social network with open access network designed to facilitate the sharing of the scientific knowledge, as the ResearchGate. All this should make we think on the need to prepare an appropriate environmental training that, from first grade secondary-schooling and upper secondary schooling, prepares the new generations to properly handle the news, the information and the scientific data published for free on the Net: the Open Research Data.
Photos > Claudia Jaguaribe came third at the Photographic Competiion “The Syngenta Photography Award – Exploring Global Challenges”, 2017 edition called: Grow/Conserve a) Amazonia Forest, Brazil, © 2010-2014; b) Mangue, Mato Grosso, Brazil, © 2010-2014; c) Pantanal, Mato Grosso, Brazil, © 2010-2014 - http://www.claudiajaguaribe.com.br/en
All the qualities of the environmental communicator.
On the basis of reflections made so far, we could then affirm that that the effectiveness of the environmental communication is a synonym of: quality and clarity of contents; traceability of sources; multidisciplinary; sharing the environmental message; reporting of the "health status" of the Environment around us; planning communication chain for medium to long-term scenarios; drawing up of learning strategies to help the identification of reliable online sources, as well as the participation of all stakeholders and listening skills of their feedbacks.
With this in mind, the “professional specialisation” combined with ground practice represents a virtuous binomial that empowers the relationship between the Environmental Communicator and his audience, also in the ethical virtue which he is bound by his professional membership. We cannot forget, in fact, that «the Environment that we experiment and that we can influence is largely the result of how we prepare ourselves up to represent the world» (James Cantrill e Christine Oravec, 1996) Note 13. Communicating the Environment assumes responsibility, awareness and participation to the “environmental cause”.
Relying on reliable sources is the first step to guarantee the preservation of biodiversity, as it is underlined by the works by the Brazilian photographer Jaguaribe (Photo No. 4) that transform the Amazon jungle in the shelves of an "eco-library", metaphor of ''Ecosystem Earth”. ***
* English translation of a technical article published by La Ricerca No. 13/2017, specialised magazine focused on advanced education and communication, edited by Loescher.
Note 1: The concept of Sustainable Development is defined for the first time in 1987 by the Report Our Common Future, well-known as Bruntland Reportby the name of Gro Harlem Bruntland, President of the World Commission on Environment and Development who introduced the policy document. “The Sustainable Development is the development that enables the present generation to meet their needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs. The report is still considered a fundamental guideline which contains the key values of the Environment and Sustainable Development. In 1989, after a long internal debate, the General Assembly of the United Nations decided to organize a World Conference of Heads of State on Environment and Sustainable Development that was held in Rio de Janeiro from the 3rd to the 14th June 1992. This international meeting produced some documents of fundamental importance such as the Declaration on Environment and Sustainable Development, Agenda 21 (a detailed plan of action to promote sustainable development of the planet), the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Convention on Climate Change.
Note 2: English word widely used at a journalistic, scientific and institutional level (e.g.: European Commission) identify the concentration of waste present in the sea and ocean waters. The concentration of pollutants and non-biodegradable substances, in particular micro (<5 mm) and macro (> 5mm) plastic, is increasingly posing a serious threat to the environment, human health and the economy of coastal populations.
Note 3: Official Website: www.eionet.europa.eu/gemet/en/themes/
Note 4: They are classified as Traditional Media: the telephone, the printed newspapers and magazines, the radio, the televisionand the cinema. The 90s of the last century have marked the advent of new digital Media, the so-called Web 2.0, among them: the Web-based Network (Internet), the email, the blog, the forum or discussion groups, the chatroom, the cd and the dvd, the videogames and the Social Network. Their use has been implemented through the «Information and Communication Technologies» – ICT.
Note 5: The publication on the Internet, constant over time, of short contents (e.g. text images, videos, MP3 audio, etc.) or other elements (e.g.: bookmarks, quotes, notes) made public or concerning the members of a given virtual community. The best known example of microblogging is Twitter, inaugurated in June 2006 by its creator, the American Programmer Evan Williams.
Note 6: From recent statistics, Italians spend more than six hours in front of a screen per day, both that of PC, laptop, Tablet or Smartphone (Report We Are Social’s – Digital in 2016, international compendium of data, trends and statistics related to the digital, social and mobile telephony).
Note 7: A neologism which describes the behaviour of those companies that, in order to increase their turnover, focus the attention of users-consumers on their alleged eco-environmentally friendly features, thus diverting public opinion to hide their real responsibility in terms of environmental pollution.
Note 8: The World Economic Forum is a non-profit foundation, born 1971 at Clogny (near Geneva, on the initiative of the economist and academic Klaus Schwab. Each year, during wintertime, the Forum promotes, at the ski town of Davos (Switzerland), a meeting among the most important exponents of the international political and economic landscape, as well as the international intellectual and journalistic world, in order to discuss the most relevant issues among which health and environment. Other meetings are organized in China and the Arab Emirates. The Foundation publishes yearly a series of research reports and involves its members in topic missions.
Note 9: The towns involved in the project at present are: Boston, New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, Sacramento in the United States; Vancouver and Toronto in Canada; London, Paris, Amsterdam, Geneve and Turin in Italy for Europe; Tel Aviv in the Middle East.
Note 10: Google Street View) Google Maps is a feature of Google Earth which provides panoramic views at 360° in horizontal and at 290° in vertical along the streets (at a distance of 10-20 meters apart), allowing the users to visualise the urban area of the most important cities in the world and from the point of view of a pedestrian.
Note 11: In the technological language, the word open source identifies a software in which more authors share the source, helping thus the free access and the possibility for the programmers to make changes and extensions.
Note 12: A pool of professionals who, although in different sectors of competence, use the same homogeneous and shared terminology that allows them to supervise and resolve the most important environmental issues. It is not a foregone conclusion and it has arousen interest in the field of research, giving birth, among others, to the Eco- linguistics, a new branch of the linguistic research.
Note 13: Cfr. Cox Robert Cox, Pezzullo Phaedra C., Environmental Communication and the Public Sphere, Sage Publications Ltd, Los Angeles – London – New Delhi - Singapore – Washington DC – Boston, 4th edition, 2015, pp. 422.
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By Maurice Abbati (Mission for Energy Transition - Gouvernement Princier, 25th April 2022)