A few months ago, I received a proud text from my mom that she and my aunt had both refused straws at dinner. Like the other 34 million of us, they had seen the video of a turtle having a straw removed from his nose and were moved to action. Following the video and a celebrity-backed #stopsucking social media campaign, policy-makers and companies like Starbucks, McDonald’s, and Alaska Airlines initiated plans to phase out straws and other single use plastics.
It would be misleading to attribute the spike in straw bans solely to the viral turtle video, but it’s impossible to ignore that many modern environmental campaigns are characterized by regular use of images, videos, and soundbites. In the past few years alone, shocking images – including a starving polar bear and a seahorse clinging to a cotton swab – have catapulted environmental issues into mainstream media. Here in the Pacific Northwest, an orca made international headlines as she carried her deceased calf around for seventeen days, adding another layer of publicity and pressure to Governor Inslee’s Orca Task Force.
Social media isn’t the only way environmental advocates are engaging the public. Virtual reality (VR) programs – computer generated, realistic experiences – are increasingly being leveraged to allow users to “visit” far-away places and experience the effects of climate change. The Georgia Aquarium has invested in a VR exhibit that takes visitors underwater to prehistoric marine environments, and National Geographic Museum has created a VR theater experience where visitors explore Bears Ears National Monument and Antarctica with world-famous photographers. Stanford University brings high school students to their Virtual Human Interaction Lab, where they watch their virtual marine environment perish from ocean acidification and provide researchers with useful data about how to use VR to increase environmental empathy. David Attenborough and Jane Goodall, two iconic names in conservation media, have partnered with VR projects to provide diving and safari inspired experiences.
While increased screen time has its downsides, there are a few reasons to be excited about the growing use of social media and virtual reality in conservation. First, results from Pew Research Center studies reveal that 82% of U.S. adults ages 18-49 use social media and 95% of U.S. teens own or have access to a smartphone. These statistics, together with the numbers of views of the videos and photos above, indicate that social media is a critical tool for creating public awareness about environmental issues. The same study also showed that 90% of teens play video games, suggesting they could be an ideal audience for virtual reality games tailored to environmental education. Second, as virtual reality becomes more affordable and widely used, people who currently don’t have access to engaging environmental experiences will be able to use VR to learn about conservation and find more ways to become involved in environmental advocacy. Finally, social media and VR could mean great news for animals as well, as they could supplement – and in some cases replace – wildlife exhibits that have been shown to harm the very animals they are intended to help. If the viral videos mentioned above are any indication, both social media and VR have great promise in providing the types of environmental content that are most likely to engage today’s technology-driven users.
With the effects of climate change becoming increasingly widespread and visible, we as environmental advocates must use all the tools at our disposal to spread the word and inspire action. Thankfully, social media and VR continue to provide us with opportunities to make sure the stories our environment is telling us are seen and heard by people all over the world. Nothing can replace a personal connection or a first-hand experience with climate change, but social media and virtual reality can help us get pretty close and just might be the future of conservation education.
Every Thursday through April and May, Currents is covering the past, present, and future of the conservation movement in the U.S. and beyond. This is the seventh article in the series, read the first article here, the second here, the third here, the fourth here, the fifth here, and the sixth here.