Environmental journalists are no longer alone in their efforts to educate the public about issues in the natural environment. They are being joined by “new communicators,” from artists to wildlife experts, who are enthusiastically sharing their knowledge about the natural world with broader audiences.
Late Wednesday night at the Society of Environmental Journalists conference in Miami, those willing to stay up were able to witness some of these “new communicators.” One surprising speaker impressed everyone in the room.
Richard Zajac, a 17-year-old from St. Louis, spoke about his documentary film on the Fukushima, Japan, nuclear disaster. Zajac was able to network his way into meeting Jean-Michel Cousteau and commanding the respect of the long-time environmental advocate.
“Why should he care, why did he have to say, ‘Oh, I want to know what’s going on, and I want to go over there’?” Cousteau said. “Those are the decision-makers of tomorrow, who recharge my batteries and keep me plugged in and doing what I believe needs to be done.”
Zajac was concerned about what the disaster meant for the ocean and asked Cousteau for help in finding those answers. He played a clip of his documentary and went on to speak about some not so obvious problems, such as a social stigma against people from Fukushima and inaccurate evacuation zones.
“Tens of thousands of people are living in areas more hazardous than some of the evacuation areas,” Zajac said.
Also speaking was Jim Toomey, a cartoonist who uses his comic strip “Sherman’s Lagoon” to speak for the ocean. The strength of this medium is that it does not require much of someone’s time to read; people can get the message in less than a minute. The fact that it appeals to children is another plus.
“I talk about issues through the voice of a talking shark, which sometimes discredits the reality of my strips, and that is a weakness,” Toomey said. Despite what others might think, Toomey uses real places like The Great Pacific Garbage Patch as a setting for his strips. The central theme of his work is shark conservation through education. Toomey has also tackled issues such as shark finning.
Artist Xavier Cortada has launched The Reclamation Project, a collaborative eco-art intervention. Cortada has installations around Florida that remind viewers of the plant life that existed before development. His latest project is about mangroves, a plant that is food and shelter for many different animals in the wild. Mangroves also prevent shores from being washed away during storms or hurricanes.
“The Reclamation Project explores our ability to coexist with the natural world,” Cortada said of his latest project. “It reminds us of what our community looked like before all the concrete was poured.”
Mangrove seedlings are placed in urban areas around South Florida, where for a few months they will reclaim the land that they thrived on only a few decades ago. Then the seedlings will be planted on the shores of Biscayne Bay.
Ron Magill, a wildlife expert who appears on television shows and documentaries, shared his animated enthusiasm for animals. He spoke about how he finds ways to not just preach to the choir.
“You are not above anything when it comes to reaching a broad audience,” Magill said.
Magill is the wildlife correspondent for Sabado Gigante, a variety show known for its women dancing in skimpy outfits. At first he felt silly about being on the show, Magill said, but then he realized that its giant audience does not usually get a chance to hear about wildlife.
Michael Fishbach, a conservationist who works with the Great Whale Conservancy, produced a video, “Saving Valentina,” about a humpback whale being freed from a fishing net. The video has captured the attention of millions on YouTube.
“Provided that we share nature’s beauty with people,” said Jean-Michel Cousteau, “they will fall in love.”