Once upon a time, the sea was full of monsters. Huge, dark, brooding figures that could live without air in the black, cold, salty waters of the world’s oceans. These unknowable creatures were surrounded with folklore and spoken of with fear and caution.
Killing these monsters was a full-time job. It wasn’t just extraordinarily lucrative (the rendered fat of these giant beasts kept millions of homes warm and bright), it was an act of heroism. Fast forward 100 years, and how times have changed. If you were to announce your career as a whaler to friends and family today, you’d be a pariah rather than a hero.
So what happened?
A lot. First and foremost, we killed most of the whales. As whale populations plummeted (from millions, to thousands, and even to hundreds), they became harder to hunt and we found other sources of fuel and employment. That explains why whales aren’t (widely) killed for their blubber any more, but it doesn’t explain why taking up whaling today would cause outrage in most circles. (Yes, only most, unfortunately).
Dr Roger Payne is a biologist and conservationist. In 1967, he recorded the song of humpback whales just off the coast of Hawaii, describing it as “exuberant, uninterrupted rivers of sound”. In 1970, he released Songs of the Humpback Whale on vinyl, which quickly became the bestselling natural history recording of all time.
A year later, Dr Payne founded Ocean Alliance and the Save the Whale movement started. Eventually, this led to the end of commercial whaling (it was banned by the International Whaling Commission in 1986) and the protection of most whale species. In 2008, the humpback’s status was changed from ‘vulnerable’ to ‘least concern’.
The discovery of whale song wasn’t just a scientific breakthrough, it was an emotional one. Instead of monsters from the deep, whales became creatures we could relate to. And the more we learned about them, about the fact they live in family pods and mourn their dead, the more we cared. This isn’t necessarily right, but it is true.
Making sustainability accessible is all about connection. Rational facts about biodiversity loss and ecosystem services have their place, but they are not always the right tool for the job. If you want any kind of consensus and impact, your message has to connect to people’s lives.
The startling impact of last winter’s series of Blue Planet is an example of this (not to mention an interesting parallel to the discovery of whale song). Suddenly, as families across the UK and around the world, saw and felt the impact of plastic in our oceans, it became intolerable. A movement for change swept across the land, achieving more progress in one year than the last ten put together. Just the other day, ‘single-use’ was declared word of the year.
(A mild disclaimer: not all rapid change is good. The knee-jerk adoption of bio-plastics by companies in response to consumer pressure certainly makes us feel better but isn’t necessarily the best move for the environment.)
Making sustainability accessible is not about dumbing down the facts. The over-simplification of sustainability communications is as short-sighted and ineffective as the over-complication. Instead, we need to find a way to communicate with feeling.
The good news is, sustainability is on your side. It’s our home we’re talking about, after all. We love animals, we love trees, we love the sea, and we LOVE feeling good about the choices we make. Our job, as communicators in this space, (and it is most definitely our job), is to make sure sustainability’s irresistible song is heard by as many people as possible.
Lucy is a member of the extended Mile 91 team, and a freelance sustainability communications expert.
Read more about Mile 91’s work on sustainability communications here: