green eye
If we don't see our environment, that may be because we don't think it matters.

The road to forgetfulness is paved with good intentions.

If we know something is good for us, that is no guarantee we will take action. In the context of environmental and social issues, I’m interested in actions and results. Good intentions don’t mean that the rubber will hit the road.

There’s a growing discussion online and offline about what kids lose by spending so much time indoors. Asking young people questions about their neighborhood ecosystems shows that they often are not aware of the ecosystems around them.

However, I don’t see this as a question of lacking a sense of place or belonging. It’s a question of selective perception. Young people perceive the things they need to notice for survival and social approval (and for some other reasons). If something isn’t relevant, they may overlook it. They learn what matters by talking with their friends, families, classmates and teachers.

In the urban environment where I lived before college, I didn’t need to know about edible plants. I was aware of industrial pollution because I could smell steel mill exhaust. Occasionally, it was not safe to swim in Lake Michigan. So I needed to know about pollution when beaches were closed.

But the water advisories weren’t very important to me and other teenagers I knew in Chicago. We often thought about jobs, appearances, grades, friends and sports because those were the priorities of our communities. Street safety was also relevant. Edible plants were not part of the story.

Instead of regretting young people’s lack of connection to their ecosystems, we should look at the messages we give them. If they realize environmental knowledge is relevant to their lives, that’s when the story will change. If we talk with young people about environmental issues in a way that relates directly to their lives and interests, we can shift the story from “it’s good for you” to “it matters to you.” Making environmental communication relevant requires a shift in perspective.

Speaking of shifts in perspective, I decided to write this post after visiting the “Eye Spy: Playing with Perception” exhibit at the Peabody Essex Museum. This exhibit, a series of optical illusions, includes a quote which summarizes the take-home message of this post.

We perceive what we expect to perceive and what we think is expected of us. – Ray Moses

The New England Aquarium unveiled its Live Blue Initiative recently. The initiative uses some of the same communication approaches I’ve seen in successful energy efficiency programs.

Like the energy use stickers from my Twitter post this week, the Live Blue site attempts to connect our environmental choices with their effects. The site asks visitors to click on an image of a sea creature to select an area of the ocean; once they select these places, they can commit to taking environmental actions. For example, when I click on the image of a rare dolphin from the New Zealand coast, I learn that “living blue” can help this species of dolphin survive.

Hector's dolphin

Inviting people to make commitments can be a very successful approach for environmental outreach. But what is “living blue” – and how does it make a difference? The site suggests environmentally friendly choices, but doesn’t connect these actions with their results. I know using fewer plastic bags is a good idea, since many of them become unhealthy appetizers for animals in the ocean. But if I’m deciding between bringing reusable bags to the store and not buying oysters, how do I know what to choose? If I didn’t read environmental news, I wouldn’t know oysters are going extinct.

I’m already supportive of the New England Aquarium’s work, so I’m interested in learning more about “living blue.” But there are many people who are not sure why they should recycle. If the New England Aquarium wants site visitors to understand that their choices have environmental consequences, the site should make the connection between the “living blue” actions and their potential benefits – especially the benefits that are clearly and directly relevant to website visitors.

In May, I spent a day at the Museum of Science and exploring downtown Boston. What caught my attention at the museum wasn’t the IMAX or the dinosaur. Instead, I saw that the exhibits are full of brain teasers designed to nudge us out of our everyday assumptions about science and nature.

If you walk through the  exhibit called “A Bird’s World,” you’ll see the museum staff have avoided labeling some of the birds. A sign comments wryly that birds don’t have name tags in the wild.

Strolling toward the Natural Mysteries exhibit, you can look to the right – near the door – and see a wall-mounted board inviting you to play a guessing game. You can lift up different flaps labeled with descriptions and find surprising information underneath them. Lifting one flap, labeled “an animal,” shows people their own faces in a mirror.

The Natural Mysteries exhibit asks visitors to imagine they’ve woken up on the shore of a desert island. The “island” takes up an entire corner of the room. The challenge? Using a list of shells from different parts of the world, figure out where you’ve landed.

Other challenges throughout the room include identifying when a deserted schoolhouse was built; learning which mammal skulls are which; and understanding mountain lions by reading their footprints.

Just when you think you’ve escaped the brain teasers by going up to the second floor, the Seeing is Deceiving exhibit is waiting to confound you. The artwork consists of a series of images which change their appearance depending on one’s location and perspective.

If you’re getting tired of thinking after staring at the Mobius strip in the Mathematica exhibit, you can spend a few minutes in the butterfly garden taking in the sunshine. Make sure there aren’t any orange and blue hitchhikers hanging onto your jacket when you leave.

Butterfly at the Museum of Science
A butterfly close-up from Boston.com