Book Review"Enabling Eco Action?A Handbook for Anyone Working with the Public on Conservation"

In International Review for Environmental Strategies (IRES) Volume 4 Number 1 (2003)
Peer-reviewed Article

This handbook aims to be a road map for anyone working with a community to achieve environmental change, including environmental educators and managers, local government officers, and community development officers. It is especially designed for the many people with science backgrounds now involved in community projects to conserve species, habitats, and ecosystems, and is written for an Australian?and urbanized?market. It is written in a clear and easy-to-read style in an A5 paper-size format and challenges traditional ways in which nature or biodiversity education is undertaken.

It starts from the premise that knowledge alone does not harm the environment, nor do human attitudes. On the other hand, human behaviours have greatly harmed the environment yet hold a great deal of hope for helping it. It is therefore on how to change human behaviour that the book focuses. It brings together ideas on social change from the fields of health promotion and adult learning and applies them to biodiversity, and the principles are useful for many types of community-based work.

It emphasizes that community education is more than producing posters and brochures based on transferring natural science knowledge and skills. The handbook is oriented to participative, community-driven approaches that enable collective action for change, and it defines biodiversity education as “enabling communities to act to conserve or restore nature.” It points out that, traditionally, the educator was seen as a source of expert knowledge, and that the educational process was complete when knowledge was passed on. In this product, the educator is seen as an enabler, doing whatever is required to bring people together and make possible collective learning and self-directed action.

The handbook has three sections:
1. Reaching the Public ? This section describes good practice, along with the need to get in touch with people’s values and explaining why people act or do not act. It brings together the theoretical basis of the approach and some models on social change.
2. Implementing a Successful Project ? In this section, checklists and guidance are provided for practical application. A list of communication pitfalls offers some reminders of the common mistakes. Helpful matrixes and questions are provided to help the reader work through the planning process. Useful questions are provided so that materials are pre-tested and the approach is well thought through.
3. Further Information ? This section includes the results of research on attitudes about biodiversity in New South Wales and the United States, and offers tips for talking about biodiversity, debunking myths, a glossary of terms, and steps to make a communication plan.

The authors point out that people act for their own reasons and that it is often more important to get people to act than for them to understand the exact reasons we think they should act. This idea?drawn from research?suggests knowledge and attitudes may be learnt as a result of acting or trialing a new behaviour first. They reveal the results of social research and what this information means to educators to plan appropriate approaches.

This basis for social change is often criticized by environmental and sustainable development educators whose approaches are oriented to developing skills of critical reflection and the ability to make informed choices. The handbook reports that there is evidence “that peer group pressure, stand out advertising and a catchy jingle may be more effective than the kind of sensitive information-rich campaigns government bodies like to run.”

The handbook has a well-argued case for its approach and draws on the two authors’ practical experience in conservation work. The value of the approach lies in breaking down “biodiversity” into doable actions, thus making it practical and focused. Three of the five case studies are focused on species conservation projects, and the others on limiting alien species distribution through nurseries and developing an urban natural corridor. While the authors makes it clear that attracting people’s attention to conservation issues is more complex that giving a lecture, it would have been valuable to report on work where projects have succeeded with poorer rural communities, so as to explore the incentives and motivations.

How practical is this handbook to guide the intended audience, the non-specialist communicator?

Working through the 70-odd pages of implementation steps could seem daunting. One of the difficulties for communication work is that the knowledge about how to do it is difficult to make explicit in written form; so often the skills of people-oriented approaches are learned by trial and error and mentoring. The authors suggest that planning be undertaken in a participative way with those to whom the process is to be directed. Setting the goals of the project and analyzing whether the impact will be worthwhile is a good first reality-check. Guidance is provided for making objectives actionable and planning the evaluation from the start. The analysis of the audiences into the advocates, intermediaries, and the target groups is useful to guide what each needs to know. Pointers are included about how to undertake a focus group so that the interests of the target groups can be assessed and barriers to change identified.

The first steps to planning the programme are then outlined. A section on crafting messages is helpful to reduce jargon and to consider steps to frame a message for the different groups. A campaign matrix is provided to help think through the range of media?from face-to-face to information tools and media stories that can be applied to reach people through different angles. A useful checklist is provided to pre-test a communication product. As onerous as it can seem, planning always saves time and energy.

While focused on the Australian situation, the methodology has merit for other countries in the world. By using the recommended participatory approaches in developing the communication and mobilization approaches, the seemingly narrow nature conservation focus in the handbook’s examples can be broadened to include socio-economic concerns.

Full text is available on EBSCOhost database:

Denise Hamú
Wendy Goldstein