Leaf Litter

Expert Q&A: Dr. John Fraser

Meet a leader in the field of conservation psychology.

“Johnny” Fraser is a conservation psychologist, architect, and educator. His research focuses on how our experience with media and community influences learning, attitudes, and motivations for engagement with solving the problems that face society. Johnny began his career as an architect specializing in zoos.

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His curiosity about how zoos could best further their conservation missions by changing people’s attitudes toward the environment ultimately led him into the field of conservation psychology just as it was emerging.  He has been an active member of the community of conservation psychologists ever since.  In addition to his work as President and CEO of NewKnowledge, a New York-based think tank, Johnny holds adjunct faculty positions at Hunter College of CUNY’s graduate program in Animal Behavior and Conservation, Columbia University’s Center for Environmental Research and Conservation, Canisius College, and Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis’ Department of Earth Sciences Center for Urban Health (IUPUI). He holds the California Academy of Sciences appointment as Associate Editor/Operations for Curator: The Museum Journal and serves as a founding editorial board member for Museums & Social Issues. He is also a Research Scientist with Columbia University’s Earth Institute.

What is conservation psychology, and how does it differ from environmental psychology?

Addiction to the overconsumption of resources is a challenge. Conservation psychology seeks to support the population getting itself in a place that it can survive with our environment. Environmental psychology tends to focus on what we gain from interacting with nature. Conservation psychology, in contrast, asks, “What is it going to take to motivate people to change their behaviors that are causing degradation of the planet?” Conservation psychologists recognize that this is problematic for people, it doesn’t take just convincing everyone to do the right thing; sometimes you can use other techniques.

Your nonprofit think tank, NewKnowledge, provides research, program and organizational support, learning tools, training programs, etc. that all aim to “expand programs in ways that increase social knowledge, positive lived experiences, and ecological harmony.” Tell us a bit about the work of NewKnowledge.

We are a trans-disciplinary group of social scientists who focus on how people get engaged in positive social change. Our work is about more than just health or the biosphere. We try to look at the combination of health and the biosphere to understand more clearly the nature of human experience and the core motivations for positive change.

[In working toward this goal] we try to find the sweet spot in the middle of a few different disciplines. I’m a conservation psychologist, but we also have a biodiversity scientist, James Danoff-Burg, who focuses on the marrying of ecological and human systems. He’s currently doing research on how to best use drone technologies to detect how potentially endangered birds are using areas where land managers wish to treat their land.

Your research was recently used to help develop a more positive framing for a PBS environmental documentary film, Becoming California. Tell us about your work on that project. 

Our role on that project was to serve as external researchers/evaluators. The producers asked us, “What is the baseline for Californians’ understanding of the environment?” We realized that it was important to talk to PBS viewers, so we began by doing a study of PBS viewer behavior in documentaries. In looking at their responses to our storyline surveys we were able to identify some core things that limit people’s willingness to tune in. One was [the perceived politicization of the topic] based on the language used. Fox News watchers were more likely to say “If it’s a story about California’s environment, I’m not going to watch it. If it’s a story about California’s nature, I will.” We also found that conservative voters are self-editing what they watch because they’re fed up with being told they are bad people.

So we suggested [to the producers] that we look at positive psychology, frame the language of the film around possible futures, and focus not on what everyone has done wrong, but what people are doing right. In the third act of the documentary, the producers really took our advice to heart. They found a scholar in Arizona who spoke about reconciliation. They were able to illustrate positive social groups who were acting to make the world a better place. We are in the middle of post-viewing surveys now, but pilot testing showed that the film is being positively received.  We also have a paper out in the Journal of Mass Media and Journalism. It’s pretty darned exciting for me, as a psychologist, to know that there has been media produced that can build on theory we suggest.

Our readers are not documentary film makers, but their work does involve communicating with clients, partners, and often the public. Are there lessons they can learn about communication from that project?

I think everybody who works on environmental issues can take a lesson from this project. We have got to start talking about what we are doing well. People are drawn toward affection, love, and affirmation. When you do something and receive love, you’ll want to do more. As long as we keep telling people how bad they are we are never going create an environmental ethic people will want to go toward. You can look at temperance movements around the world and see that the more we talk about how bad people are, the less successful we are as a campaign. We need to change our whole narrative around environmental issues to something that is about doing things with people we love for things that we care and believe in.

Many experts we have interviewed for Leaf Litter have commented on the need to remove disciplinary silos. Your research has appeared in a wide variety of journals related to many different disciplines.  Could psychology be the link that connects disciplines engaged in climate change and the protection and restoration of biodiversity?

Psychology is one way of seeing; it’s about the mind and mental process. It works really well when partnered with other disciplines. But I don’t think conservation psychology is the link. It is just a part—albeit an important part—of the whole process. Understanding mental process is central to causing social change, but understanding sociological measures lets you see migration and how adoption of innovation happens. NewKnowledge is an anti-silo organization. When we look to add a staff member, we literally ask, “What’s missing? Who is not at the table?” One of our first hires at NewKnowledge was a sociologist. We have three anthropologists on staff whose ability to decode cultural narratives [bias and myth embedded in visual communication] is much stronger than mine.

I don’t want to say that psychology is the solution. The real key is being willing to know what you know and be able to ask what you don’t.

Your paper “Teaching the Public to Sing,” which appears in the fall issue of the Journal of Land Use and Environmental Law, explores the lack of public discourse related to climate change. As you point out, lack of discourse equals no action and no policy change. Can you talk about the social norm of silence, and the role that plays in the lack of discourse? (Note: a slide show related to this paper can be viewed here.)

We’re really pleased with that study that we did in collaboration with Dr. Janet Swim’s lab in the Psychology Department at Penn State University.  What we know is that a dominant culture tends not to talk about its core values or concerns, and people will not bring up topics that they find contentious unless they feel threatened.

People who are in denial about climate change go through the same pre-contemplation and contemplation phases one goes through with any negative diagnosis. If I were to tell you that you have cancer, you will go through a variety of mental processes that start with denial, diversion, and blame. It is very hard to get to acceptance. When you tell people who firmly and adamantly believe the world is stable and unchanging that the world is actually changing and it’s because of what they did, they will go through the same mental process. Changing behavior would mean changing everything they value. If they’ve been investing in corporations that have been making them lots of cash, and if they believe their freedom is at the wheel of a car, they have a lot of cultural baggage they have to change, and asking people to do that is hard. The denial side [of climate change] has a vested interested in making sure everything they hold dear is not disrupted.

In that study, we also talked to people [who were concerned about climate change] about what they thought others thought about climate change. What we found was that people automatically assumed they were aberrantly more concerned than others, which tells us that [awareness of climate change] is stressful. This built on work we were doing on environmental trauma in another paper, Sustaining the Conservationist, [Note: this research and topic are discussed further in this interview.] which demonstrated that understanding climate change is a dangerous, toxic kind of knowledge. Having to live with that means we carry a sense of loss and change that is irreconcilable and big, and that’s a lot of emotional work we’re asking people to do.

So some people who are highly engaged and fully understanding what is happening with the environment are moving in that path. Then we have folks who don’t want to go in that direction because it’s just ugly.  Either way, silence is part of the bigger story of trying to come to terms with something that really looks dangerous and scary.  I don’t think that’s unfair. Humans have ways of managing trauma, stress, and difficult issues and one of them is to not talk about it.

Your results suggested that “conservative political ideology was more aligned with lack of acceptance of the science behind the human causes of climate change than rejection of the existence of climate change.” Does that tell us anything about how scientists communicate?

It really does.  [People who espouse a conservative political ideology] have to find flaws in the system. They know something is changing, and if they can assign it to something they can’t control, then it’s easier to deal with and they don’t have to change their behavior.  They say, “I can accept climate change, but I can disagree with the science.”

We have a problem in the U.S. of distrust of science because there is a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of science. Science is often reported as fact (“Scientists now know that…” or “Scientists say…”) rather than something that is building on prior knowledge (“Scientists suggest that there is overwhelming evidence that a problem is occurring.”)

I also find that scientists tend to seek regulation rather than trusting that the public can make a good, reasoned decision.  A challenge with regulation is compliance, and if people don’t comply, you have to police. That’s one of the reasons it’s so easy to vilify the EPA: they’re perceived as a policing body. We want the EPA out of our hair, and the EPA is like, “We don’t want to be in your hair! Quit toxifying the planet and it won’t be a problem.” Creating police doesn’t always work. But helping people to come to reasoned decisions and understand the nature of science by using basic principles of empirical evidence…that is a different way of talking.

Sometimes issues of moral decision making are not science topics. Behavior change involves making moral decisions. If it’s endangered species protection, for example, we’re deciding we’re going to preference one species over the other. I know from work I did with the Wildlife Conservation Society that we humans will preference mammals, and things we find aesthetically pleasing. We’re going to preference eagles and bears, and we’re not going to do a whole lot for slime mold and banana slugs. We enter into an area where people are trying to apply both humanities and science rules.

I’ve been working for the past 11 years with Poet’s House [a private non-profit poetry library]. In one experiment we explored how poetry placed strategically in zoos might change what people see. We found that people said, “This is why I come to the zoo.” They don’t come for science, or to be told what bad humans they are; they come to reset their nature barometers.

People do want to have sense of affinity with nature. It’s very consistent with what E.O. Wilson said about biophilia. There is an environmental sense in us, and people want to explore it. But that is a humanities exploration, not a science exploration. And that is okay. It’s okay to talk about things you love and show your passion for, say, a species at risk. A dolphin researcher will argue his brains out about what the dolphin can do intellectually and cognitively. But if you talk about the dolphin drive, he’ll move completely away from the science and go straight to moral decision making and what rights we accord to other high intellectual capacity mammals. We need to think through the morality as opposed to arguing the science.

Your research suggests that a barrier to motivation to talk about environmental issues is the perception that impacts are “geographically and temporally distant” and that in terms of worrying, priority is given to more proximal concerns like one’s job, finances, family. How do practitioners and educators make climate change more personal without freaking people out?

Keep it small and proximal. Too often, we talk about things that are far away and distant, like “By 2050, the climate is going to be radically different.” Most people in America don’t even have a 401K plan! Making it proximal means talking about things that need to be done urgently, immediately, and within one’s capacity. Think locally. Generate influence in places that are close to heart and close to home, and think about other social problems your program can affect. For example, what if a church said, “Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could get energy independence at lower cost than paying to the grid?”

Here is a real example: the Sustainability in Prisons Project. This program creates quarantined facilities for breeding endangered, extirpated species in prisons by prisoners. Seven days a week, these prisoners have a job where they are sustaining living beings, building skills, and seeing a future world that is going to be better because of their actions. This is a great example of good conservation psychology. It’s taking the time to help build skills for someone who has not had the opportunity before, and taking advantage of our prison system as a learning environment and a place where moral and ethical values about protecting and saving can be developed. Once these prisoners have paid their debt, we need to [be better about] giving then employment opportunities in conservation so they can do something positive for the environment.

There is no reason we environmentalists cannot be thinking at this scale. Our own morals are getting in the way of our ability. We want everybody to think like us, so they can make decisions like us. Instead, we need to realize that we share basic moral principles, and there are different paths to moral decision making that can all lead to a better environment.

In “Teaching the Public to Sing” you conclude that it may be more effective to encourage those already concerned about climate change to engage in discourse, rather than try to increase concern among the general public. I believe Leaf Litter readers are important members of that public choir. What advice do you have for them in how to “sing” effectively?

Talk to solutions; not identification of the problem. There are solutions before us. We need to talk about what we can achieve together.  We’re clever. Humankind has succeeded in dominating the planet because we can delegate responsibility to good thinkers and act on their best ideas; we can innovate, and trust others to innovate alongside us. Our conversations about climate change don’t need to be about the science. They need to be about helping the planet to handle the change that’s coming.

We need to be strong like a sapling–not to stand up to the storm, but to bend and allow it to pass. That’s what we need to think of in terms of our language and in terms of how we build resilient communities.  If we have healthy and cared-for populations, they can build a healthy and cared-for biosphere.

In your paper “Sustaining the Conservationist,” which appeared in Ecopsychology, you share the findings of two studies you conducted to explore whether environmentalists, conservationists, and environmental educators may suffer from a subtype of acute stress and posttraumatic condition.  To set the stage for a brief discussion of the psychological toll of being an environmental practitioner very much aware of human caused environmental degradation, tell us about the Cassandra Complex and “solastalgia.”

In 2003, the Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht coined the term “solastalgia,” which is [a sense of melancholy brought on by the feeling that] nature is leaving you.  The Cassandra Complex [which comes from Greek mythology] is the scientist’s voice that says, “I have the ability to see the problem before me, but I am cursed so that no one will believe me.”  In an editorial in Conservation Biology[Retiring Cassandra. Conservation Biology, 17,1473-1474) Kent Redford [of the Wildlife Conservation Society Institute] and M.A. Sanjayan [of The Nature Conservancy] said that we need a new narrative for the environment that is not so Cassandra-like.

We referenced these terms in our study because not only are they both present [among environmental workers],  but we also saw that the more isolated an environmental worker feels, in terms of the environmental values they perceive their workmates and families have, the more likely they are to experience deleterious effects.

But let’s not say we’re all screwed. What we see is a need in the community to be a lot more positive with one another, and to hear and respect the pain that we carry in our hearts. If it is heard and respected, and we don’t just tell people to suck it up, we’re going to be in much better shape. You can’t just suck it up.

Over generations, we have developed skills for mourning. There is ritual related to loss and mourning. We say this should be an important part of environmental work. We need to start creating the spaces and opportunities to share our feelings and talk them through so we process them appropriately. When I work with conservation organizations, we actually have a moment of mourning, where we have to accept the loss and acknowledge the pain. I have given talks and literally had senior scientists come up to me afterwards in tears. It’s hard, because people are hearing their inner feelings as valid—and valued–often for the first time.  That is a big step forward.

Did your research really show that persistent exposure to negative environmental narratives and situations may ultimately put environmental workers at risk of PTSD?

It’s not exactly correct, but it’s close. We see is a co-predicting variable: persistent awareness and a sense of isolation. If you feel that your awareness of environmental issues is more acute than that of your family, immediate co-workers, and others in your social support network, you are more likely to exhibit symptoms that look like and map against PTSD.

What are some of those symptoms?

Persistent nightmares about loss; ears ringing; feelings of overwhelming sadness, isolation and loss.  It often plays out in terms of anger, so you see increased aggression.  If you want some examples, just read Gorillas in the Mist, and look at some of Dian Fossey’s behaviors.

There is a level of serious, debilitating anger that can simmer in meetings [among environmental workers], even when we’re trying to do the right thing. Even internally, our meetings [at NewKnowledge] can have elevated emotions that wouldn’t happen if you were, say, an ice cream manufacturing company. Other organizations that work on challenging issues, like children’s AIDS, have practices for helping their social workers talk through the emotions of what they see every day. We don’t have that in environmental work, and that is something we need to pay attention to.

You express caution regarding the use of the nature experience in healing those suffering emotionally over the plight of the world.  Talk about that.

Spending time in nature is restorative, but it is also spending time with the victim of violence.  We know that it is a trigger. When you deal with something like PTSD, you avoid the trigger as you talk it through. You allow the person to contemplate the trigger, and process their reaction to it. When you start by taking people out in nature, you are taking them to the trigger, so your clinical practice isn’t following what is done for other kinds of trauma.  I’m not saying don’t take people out in nature. We just have to be very cautious.

In addition to having social support and the opportunity to share/express feelings with people who share our values, what else can help to build resilience in people who work on environmental issues?

Learn to be soft, to bend and accept change as it happens. Trying to be mindful personally, but also to manage with compassion.  Celebrate the joy. A lot of us who work on the environment tend to deny our own joy.  We need to look back on what we have accomplished and say, “Holy cow. That was amazing.”

People may be bitching and moaning about climate change, and complaining about how people are acting in negative ways toward the biosphere, but we are in the best of all possible times for solving environmental problems.  We have the willpower, and we are on a planet that is completely interconnected, and have the ability to use our social connections to advance an issue.  Just last night on our blog, James Danoff-Burg in our office posted the latest on his drone studies in San Diego. Another friend on Facebook said, “Hey, we can use this for whales on the East Coast.” I replied, “call me!” People are throwing themselves into solutions; they’re trying all sorts of new technologies, and it’s happening so quickly.   When we see all the good that’s happening around us, it’s really a wonderful time to be alive!

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