Environmental concern on the streets of Truro?

Emily Easman, Kirsten Abernethy and Brendan Godley, ‘Assessing public awareness of marine environmental threats and conservation efforts’, Marine Policy 87 (2018), 234-240.

It seems fitting to write this summary a week or so after yet another survey revealed that seabirds in remote parts of the Arctic have been ingesting the chemicals found in plastics. As humanity continues to use the oceans as a convenient cesspit and wantonly treats the planet as an infinite natural resource the alarm bells are ringing ever louder. A succession of scientific reports are exposing the shocking truth of plummeting diversity and species extinction. Not only are humankind’s days numbered but we seem hell-bent on taking the rest of the planet with us.

With this in mind researchers at Exeter University’s Tremough-based Centre for Ecology and Conservation and its Environmental Sustainability Institute set out to assess the state of knowledge of threats to the marine environment. They wanted to compare the public’s knowledge with that of professionals working in marine conservation and research. They did this by an online survey of professionals and face-to-face interviews with people conducted in the streets of Truro.

The methodology is the weakest part of the article. A total of 71 public respondents is a very low number and results in a large standard error of the sample. (Most social surveys are based on at least 600 respondents for this reason.) It is also far from clear how far the 71 people interviewed were representative of the population at large. The authors provide some data on this. The public cohort was balanced in terms of gender and covered an age range from 18 to over 65, but it remains open to debate as to how far shoppers wandering the streets of Truro represent the Cornish public.

Journalists now seem convinced that asking some random person in the street for their views on the economy tells us something, but properly scientific surveys should be a lot more robust than this. One would expect a random sample of Truro flaneurs to be better off, more middle class and more likely to be incomers, for example. Suspicions are heightened by the discovery that a third of those interviewed claimed to be members of environmental or wildlife charities, which looks to be a remarkably high proportion.

Putting these caveats aside however, let’s look at the results. To an extent the exercise looks like the science of the blindingly obvious. For instance, it was found that the professionals were more concerned about the state of the oceans than those interviewed and used different sources to obtain their knowledge. Conversely the public were pretty clueless about specific conservation efforts and underplayed the severity of the threats facing marine life. Nonetheless, the data contained a few interesting findings.

First, the public level of concern was quite high, but their perception of the threats was vague and more generalised than the professionals. No surprise there as their knowledge was mainly culled from the media, which stress sensationalist items such as oil spills and fail to cover more day-to-day threats such as overfishing (for the professionals the three biggest threats were overfishing, plastic pollution and climate change). The authors of this article claimed from the evidence of their survey that the public is ‘well-informed’. Yet only two of the 71 who participated explicitly mentioned climate change as a factor in threats to the marine environment. This could in contrast be viewed as an appalling level of ignorance, reinforced by superficial and transient media coverage of the issue.

Cornish beach

Second, the study found that levels of concern among the public tended to rise with age, with those over 35 being more concerned than the younger population. This might question the simplistic assumption that somehow the younger generation is more concerned about environmental issues than the older, although again we should be cautious given the extremely low sample size.

Third, among the public the research found a ‘value-output gap’. People were asked about their ‘pro-environment lifestyle behaviour’, which encompassed consumer choice, plastic and waste disposal, holiday and leisure activities and voting preferences. On all four criteria there was a mismatch between the expressed concern and concrete action. Those aged 45-55 were most inclined to act with the environment in mind although all groups displayed less practical action than their levels of concern implied.

The article’s authors chose to focus on the issue of closing that ‘value-action gap’ and encouraging more knowledge and environmentally aware behaviour. This is to be welcomed. But it seems a relatively uninspiring response given the scale of the problem. The conclusions of the article are things such as more positive messages, simpler language and a focus on ‘promoting successful, collaborative marine conservation and management stories to a targeted audience utilising interdisciplinary communication channels’.

Of course, the elephant in the room here, assuming any elephants have survived, is government action to curb the profiteering that encourages and reproduces the problems. To supplement research on public attitudes we need research on the attitudes of a moribund and complacent political class, which seems in hock to a global elite and wedded to a seriously outdated and, as is becoming increasingly transparent, dangerous ideology of growth.

At a local level it’s good to see some first fruits of the Environmental Sustainability Institute at Penryn. We can presumably look forward to a lot more such studies, for example of the environmental consequences of Cornwall Council and the Local Enterprise Partnership’s ‘environmental growth’ strategy, the local version of global insanity. We can but hope.