Biosocial Theory and Environmental Communication

Just read a very cool article by David Backes where he proposes using biosocial theory as a framework for studying environmental communication.

Biosocial theory is just a formalized version of the widespread recognition that there are reciprocal relationships between society and the environment. Bonnicksen summarizes this formalized theory as follows:

The coadaptation of social systems with their physical environments is predicated on the reciprocal operation of two processes: the first of these consists of innovations and successive adjustments in the structure, behavior, and resource use practices of organizations in response to changes in the material, energy, and information they receive from other organizations and their physical environments; the second consists of successive adjustments in the structure and function of ecological systems in response to the material, energy, and information that is transferred to them through the resource use practices employed by organizations. (Bonnicksen & Lee, 1982, p. 52)

Backes further and more simply reduces Bonnicksen's summary as follows, "Individuals and groups in society intentionally or unintentionally affect their physical environments, which respond to these actions in some manner, and this response when perceived by individuals and organizations, encourages them to continue or change their actions."(Backes, p.150)

Backes sees biosocial theory as a useful framework for researchers wishing to explore the relationships between mass communication (part of the social system) and ecosystems through the linkages of human perceptions and behaviour. It also has a useful open-ended predictive function: "Biosocial theory predicts that effects may be expected not only in the direction of mass communication-human perceptions/ behavior-ecosystem, but also in the reverse direction." (P.150).

To test the use of biosocial theory for mass communication research, Backes uses a case study reviewing environmental communication over 50 years as it pertains to a wilderness area (the Quetico-Superior) straddling the border of Ontario and Northern Minnesota. Based on his review, Backes derives five empirical generalizations that he provides evidence for, with important implications for environmental communicators:

G1: Mass media construct images of place and disseminate them to audiences.

G2: The more dependent a person is on the mass media for information about a place, the more important the mass media will be in shaping the person's images of that place.

G3: The images people have of a place will affect that place’s biophysical environment.

G4: The level of social conflict over use and management of a place varies according to the extent that the dominant media images of the place contradict each other.

Among other interesting findings, Backes found considerable social conflict over the issue of controlled burns. In an effort to "balance" the ecosystem (following protections that banned logging) conservationists advocated controlled burns, while the general public, heavily influenced by the U.S. Forest Service's own highly successful "Smokey the Bear" fire prevention campaigns, felt that forest fires were a negative phenomenon to be avoided, let alone intentionally produced.

Backes also found a correlation between mass media depictions of the area as a fishing paradise, a subsequent rise in fishing tourism, and a subsequent crash in fish populations. Backes also found conflict between mass media depictions of the area as the aforementioned fishing paradise and later as a spiritual wilderness area (as communicated by groups like the Sierra Club). Ultimately the mass media depictions of the area as a quiet, spiritual place to be protected grew dominant, with the area eventually protected from logging and motorized water recreation, with fishing lodges purchased and torn down.

While mass media couldn't be the sole determinant of the areas' transformation, it has undoubtedly been one of the most powerful, especially considering that society's knowledge and beliefs about acceptable practices in the area (given its remote location), and subsequent utilizations, were mostly derived from media depictions.

A biosocial approach to evaluating Canada's own domestic and international social conflicts with respect to environmental land-use decisions in the tar sands might be useful to those advocating for a slower, cleaner approach to their development. It also explains why mass media depictions of the tar sands, are so important, and why environmentalists need to shift from images that demonize, towards images and symbols that chart a new future for the area.