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How to communicate danger in a pedagogic way

June 24, 2011

As a university lecturer in mycology I have also had the pleasure of teaching very young children about mushrooms. I soon realized that some children did not seem affected by the explanation that a number of mushrooms are deadly poisonous. Death might be an abstract phenomenon to a young child, so I had to adapt my pedagogic approach to the experience of my audience: I explained that if you eat the wrong mushroom, you will suffer from severe diarrhoea and poo everywhere like a little baby. That description was enthusiastically accepted by the audience who knew both poo and babies.

So, how do we communicate to adults that it is a shame we are currently destroying the original forests and their creatures, that lost species will be gone forever, and that new species may need tens of millions of years to evolve?

Perhaps we need to change the time scale from the abstract ‘ten million years’ to ‘how will our descendants, left in a junk yard, judge us 80 years from now?’. Then the issue becomes a question of shame and honour.

When I was a child I was warned by my father that a particular knife was very sharp, and a second later I tried the edge and cut my finger. My father could not believe his eyes when he saw my ‘stupidity’, and I agree it was stupid, but on the other hand it is a scientific approach to test a statement yourself. Many mistakes made by the western countries in 1860-1960 are now repeated by developing countries, in spite of recommendations. The problem with biodiversity decline is that a band aid will not help if a species is lost.

The first pedagogic challenge is to explain why we need 1100 wild orchid species in Thailand, when the shopping malls seem to function fine without them. We should not use hollow arguments such as ‘all species are equally important, and society may collapse if we lose one’. Most people can see that statement is more religious than empirical, and then people may lose interest in your faith. Better tell the truth: the world becomes poorer, uglier and less interesting! Replacing an avatar-like forest with rubber trees and corn is like burning down a national museum to build a chicken farm. This demands some knowledge in the mind of the discussion partner, which is why education is extremely important. However, today’s military regimes in surrounding countries are not educated and since the forests will be gone in our time the argument of disgusting behaviour will be in vain.

A more clever argument is money. Save the forests to make money on tourists. Again, it is a matter of education, as most Thais never travel abroad, and therefore they have only a vague imagination about what eco tourism and safari is. Proper scientific studies of eco tourism in Australia with actual dollar signs, in combination with study trips, may do the trick.

I also believe that carbon dioxide as an explanation for the global warming is wrong, and that this mantra blinds us from real disasters such as the current extinction of species. Again, education and open discussions between different scholars (not politicians, not environmentalists, not journalists) would help people judge for themselves.

If any of our readers have more suggestions on pedagogic approaches to communicate the importance of supporting conservation efforts, please let us know on the blog ‘The Last Days of the Orchids’.

Dendrobium spatella is an indigenous Thai orchid which we grow at Dokmai Garden.

Eric Danell

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Corien Schuurmans permalink
    June 24, 2011 5:34 PM

    Dear Eric,

    I totally agree with your analysis to point out the “here and now” effects of environmental actions. On a day to day basis I experience this in my work as change manager for global corporations. Although people like to talk about the big picture and what should happen on the macro scale, the reality is in the day to day behaviour and actions of individuals.

    When assessing the change readiness of business we usually check for the following conditions for change: Is there a clear need for change? Is there a shared vision? Do the people involved have the ability to change? And are actionable first steps agreed?
    All four aspects must be addressed to start a change or awareness journey. And very often one or more of the aspects are forgotten.

    So my suggestion on pedagogic approaches to communicate the importance of supporting conservation efforts is to ensure that we define and communicate:
    1) We need to understand the audience/group we want to communicate with
    2) We need to use words from their terms of reference or daily life
    3) We need to cover the 4 conditions to change: what is the burning platform? What are we aiming for? Are you willing and able to make the change happen? So what should we do tomorrow?

    Love from the Netherlands!
    Corien Schuurmans

    • June 25, 2011 2:44 PM

      Splendid – thanks a lot – and happy midsummer greetings from Sweden!


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