Balancing Shock and Optimism in a Time of Declining Attention Span

A pair of brown pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis) fly in tandem in southern Puerto Rico. Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2008.

A pair of brown pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis) fly in tandem in southern Puerto Rico. Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2008.

By Richard Telford

“You can’t leave things like that around for me to see.”

The cover of the Winter 2015-2016 issue of SE Journal. Photo origin: Save-Elephants via Wikimedia commons.

The cover of the Winter 2015-2016 issue of SE Journal. Photo origin: Save-Elephants via Wikimedia commons.

My seven-year-old daughter told me this when I left a copy of SE Journal on the bathroom counter. SE Journal is a publication of the Society of Environmental Journalists, and the issue in question featured an image of a dusty savanna strewn with bloody elephant bones—the aftermath of a March 2013 massacre by poachers of 90 savanna elephants in the central African country of Chad. I felt badly, of course, and flipped the journal over to its innocuous back cover as we spoke, but I did briefly explain the image in simple terms. I thought, and still think, the context mattered. Afterward, I reflected many times on this exchange, as it raised questions for me, both as a parent and as an environmental journalist. Even as I write this now, those questions persist.

The cover for the January 1976 issue of National Geographic, which featured Dr. David M. Lavigne's article, "Life or Death for the Harp Seal." Lavigne considered the possibility that annual Canadian seal harvest might drive the harp seal (Pagophilus groenlandicus) to extinction.

The cover for the January 1976 issue of National Geographic, which featured Dr. David M. Lavigne’s article, “Life or Death for the Harp Seal.” Lavigne considered the possibility that annual Canadian seal harvest might drive the harp seal (Pagophilus groenlandicus) to extinction.

Growing up in the late 1970s and early 1980s, one image of human barbarism against the natural world defined the call for environmental policy change more than any other, at least in my memory—the clubbing of baby seals on Canada’s northern ice floes during that nation’s annual, government-regulated seal harvest. Magazine covers and documentary films featured images of seal pups (the primary target of the harvest, then and now) with large, dark eyes staring innocently at the camera. Then, there were the images of slicker-clad sealers wielding hakapiks, the traditional club with a curved or angled pick blade used to drag the dead and dying seals across the ice. The contrast of these two images, the first of moving beauty, the second of appalling barbarism, is reflective of the quandary within which environmental writers, and environmental advocates more broadly, often must work. Too much coverage of the benign and beautiful, and we ignore the realities of the environmental crisis with which we are confronted. We risk luring the reader or viewer into complacency, inaction. Too much coverage of the brutal and the jarring, and we cause the reader or viewer to turn away, out of disgust or hopelessness or both. The greatest danger in that case is that their gaze does not turn our way again. There, too, we end at inaction, and inaction can be deadly. These are two poles of response that we, as environmental journalists, may elicit, and there are many gradients between them, all of which demand our attention and careful navigation.

The cover for the first American Edition (1985) of Canadian author Farley Mowat's 1984 book Sea of Slaughter.

The cover for the first American Edition (1985) of Canadian author Farley Mowat’s 1984 book Sea of Slaughter.

In 1984, Canadian naturalist-writer Farley Mowat published Sea of Slaughter, in which he wrote of the plight of native North American bird, fish, and mammal species after the arrival of European settlers. While the 1984 first Canadian edition, published by McClelland and Stewart Limited, featured a rather generic photograph of a raging sea, the first American edition, published by The Atlantic Monthly Press in 1985, featured a photograph of an arctic landscape, presumably Canadian, with basking seals and a sealer approaching from the foreground, hakapik or rifle in hand—the photograph is not fully clear. Of Mowat’s book, Kirkus Reviews offered the following assessment in 1985:

Mowat’s repeated accounts of slaughter are necessarily monotonous, and it’s not his habit to ponder shifting cultural attitudes or suggest practical middle ground between commercial and conservationist courses. What he has produced is one single-minded and savage howl of outrage, ultimately convincing by the very repetitiveness of the evidence.

The necessary monotony referenced by the reviewer above reflects another challenge of environmental journalism. While evidence rooted in example after example can build a case that is ultimately convincing, how long can that case truly resonate? Probably never long enough. Anyone who engages in even the most cursory examination of the patterns of journalistic coverage in the present time, environmental or otherwise, can see readily how stories, even ones of tremendous importance, cycle out of the public sphere of interest with frightening speed. This is especially true in a time when, as a society, we are largely fixated on and addicted to devices that hand us the world, albeit a terribly simplified and narrow version of it, as quickly as we can work those devices. There is a growing body of research that suggests that our attention spans have diminished as a direct consequence of greater social networking of all types. This pattern seems unlikely to abate in our lifetimes.

Last year, Microsoft, in a widely reported study, announced that, since 2000, the human attention span has decreased from 12 seconds to 8 seconds, below the average attention span of a goldfish, which is estimated to be 9 seconds. While the Microsoft study and others like it are certainly subject to scrutiny and qualification, one hardly needs to look far in day to day life to see a public that is single-mindedly attached to its devices to the detriment of meaningful connections both to other people and to the natural world. Species are vanishing. Our landscape is becoming irrevocably fragmented. Polar ice is vanishing. Global temperatures are rising. Our factory food system is poisoning us. But who is paying attention? And for how long? How many of you, while reading this post, have made it this far without turning momentarily to another screen or device at least once? We are in sore need of a paradigm shift that can realign our attention to what matters, but the prospect of making that shift in a long-term and sustainable way seems dubious. This affects the practice of environmental journalism in profound ways.

The truth is that even the most shocking image, be it the clubbing of baby seals or an anthropogenic elephant graveyard at the hands of poachers, has a short shelf-life in the general public’s consciousness. So too does the outrage such an image can generate. The same pattern holds true for optimistic stories, of which—make no mistake about it—there are plenty worth telling. So, how do we as environmental journalists—or as parents, or teachers, or good global citizens for that matter—fight the apathy and the inattention which are as detrimental to the natural world as are the direct forces that drive species loss, climate change, and unsustainable living? Only with a monotony of argument and evidence, with a persistence that acknowledges but looks beyond the low odds of our success, and with an approach that aims to foster in generations to follow the willingness to take the same necessarily dogged and monotonous course, be they our readers or our students or our own children. The stakes are high and the odds are long, but are we ready to accept the alternative? I, for one, am not.

8 thoughts on “Balancing Shock and Optimism in a Time of Declining Attention Span

    • Thanks for your kind words, Dan. These are ideas that I had been mulling around in my mind for several years, but it was my daughter’s comment that really prompted me to want to put them into a coherent piece of writing, in great part to help clarify them for myself. We are in a tough place when writing about the state of the natural world, or even when educating our children or friends or colleagues about it. We need, I think, to try to instill hope both in others and ourselves, but we cannot ignore or gloss over the serious challenges we face. I think it is a question of balance, not so much in the sense that we always take a middle ground but instead that we realize there are times when shocking the reader or viewer is needed to elicit action and other times when it is counterproductive. It is a difficult balance that really demands a lot mindfulness. Thanks again for reading my piece and for taking the time to comment on it.


    • Dan,
      After responding to your comment, I read the piece that you and Fiona posted on bullfighting. It is a perfect example of a topic for which shocking the reader/viewer is necessary to get at the truth of the subject. Both the photography and the writing of your post are disturbing, and effectively so. I cannot, in that case, imagine taking a different approach. I researched the Canadian seal hunt for this piece, looking in particular at the published position of the Canadian government on it (as opposed to just looking at the literature published by opposition groups). Their published position left with me with many questions, and I will likely undertake writing a piece focused on these questions in the near future. Your bullfighting piece offers a good example of a powerful yet objective assessment of a disturbing and complex phenomenon. Thank you to you and Fiona for your efforts.

      • Hey Rich,
        Thank you for your kind words. I really appreciate you reading it and giving me your input. I must say that I have also been thinking lots about your comment. ( Hence I have not blogged since) To be honest I am a bit tired of seeing yet another we must save or conserve post. I think people as a whole are tired of that type of thing, I also know that even our local Movie production directors have put the word out that they don’t want any more save or conserve documentary’s nor will they support any ideas along that line. Its to depressing so no one will watch. So I totally understand and agree with what you said. Balance is crucial.
        I am quite into animal behavior and have invested loads of time as well as effort into this. I would like to think I am more connected than most.This is why this subject hit home quite hard .Not to mention when I was younger I remember spending hours looking for a cow that did not return home one eve only to find her giving birth to a calf. It was a long and painful eve but all ended well in the morn. Very Long story short three or so years later that calf had grown up into a full size cow. I remember one afternoon taking her out feeding her favorite treats.
        Once she was calm and relaxed to the point of nearly lying down in the grass, A hidden gun was taken out then very quickly we shot her in the head and bled her. I skinned and cut her up with my knife.( She was to be eaten)
        The reason why I tell you this is because I was close to this cow, I had seen her being born as well as nearly every day till her death. I had to harden my heart to do that. I have had to shoot or kill a few animals in my time so I am by no means a bleeding heart type. We have to do tough things to survive, its how we do these things that count.
        A hundred years ago we did not really know better but now days we have no excuse. If we have to kill to eat then lets at least respect the animal enough to not let it suffer more than need be. To do this in such a protracted cruel manner for Saturday entertainment is criminal. Well that’s my opinion anyway.

        As you are doing a blog on seal hunting I will share this with you. I live in False bay, Cape Town. I can act see Seal Island from my garden. You may have heard about this place as its well known for the jumping great white sharks on TV. In the 60s and 70s seals were harvested for their pelts from this island. Although It has been many years since this practice has stopped. So many generations of seals have been born and died with no intervention from man. On a calm day you can walk on this island and apart from the odd bull seal getting a bit tense. (This is to be expected) other than that nothing spectacular.
        Interesting thing is when you approach in a boat in the same way then hit the deck or the gunwale with club.
        You clear that island of 35 000 in a heartbeat, to the point that smaller seals will get trampled and killed.
        How is that fear of clubbing from so many years ago past on. Interesting hey.

        We don’t fully understand the long term affects of our actions as yet. I also feel that we should all be aware of what it takes to put a burger on your plate or watch a killer whale do tricks in a tank.( On some basic level) .Maybe spoilt people would not throw half eaten burgers away so easily if they were more aware.
        I hope this all made sense.. I am looking forward to your next blog. Dan

  1. Rich, I think the first part of an answer to your question is your daughter’s response. If a person from her generation can react in that way, soon that image will be her version of our generation’s 1976 Nat Geo cover. I, too, am often interested in tying current to past to show what is changing and isn’t, but should. You also just reminded me my SEJ membership has lapsed.
    Best, Neva

    • Thanks, Neva. It is so interesting to see my daughter’s conservation ethic develop, and to see the context in which that is happening. In many ways, the present time is not unlike the time we grew up in, in that certain conservation issues and threatened species certainly drew our attention. Still, she is growing up in a time when, societally, we are more aware of the environmental crisis we face and, in some ways, we are acting on that awareness in a more deliberate, if limited, way. Still, we produce so much waste, much of it laden now with heavy metals, etc. in the electronic devices we upgrade. So, how much has changed? I don’t know. What I do know is that I can shape her thinking, and that of our two young boys, much as my father really fostered a conservation ethic in me–and as I know yours did in you. I think, given the tide of our advancement (a relative term of course), environmental advocates will always be in high demand with too short a supply. But I think, too, that we simply need to keep up the fight and keep our optimism intact as much as we can.

  2. Excellent reporting and brilliant analysis, thank you Richard. We are loving your “monotonous” arguments so keep it on! I was writing a piece on greener faiths (or how bereft of environmental awareness major world religions seem to be) when I stumbled upon this site:
    Lots of wishful thinking under World Religions except for, of course, indigenous. Please enjoy.

    • Thank you for you kind words, Ericka, and for sending me the link to the role of environmentalism in world religions. Although I think most religions have traditionally been bereft of an environmental ethic and awareness, I do think that is changing a little now, perhaps simply out of an acknowledgment that we cannot continue living so unsustainably without paying a heavy price (the burden of which we will give to our children and to future generations). I look forward to reading the article you linked. Thank you for taking the time to comment here.

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