You probably don't know that February 3 is World Wetlands Day -- a day of proclamations, press releases, ceremonies, festivals, newsletter articles, and t-shirts all clamoring to raise awareness about the vital role of these vital habitats.

World Wetlands Day is just one of many well-meaning efforts to create a commemorative occasion to call attention to some particular environmental topic. Here in the United States, World Wetlands Day shares the calendar with annual events such Earth Hour, Earth Day, World Water Day, National Environmental Education Week, Endangered Species Week, International Migratory Bird Day, National Rivers Month, National Wildlife Refuge Week, National Fishing Week, National Parks Month, and National Birdfeeding Month.

Just to name a few.

So here’s a key question: Do these commemorative occasions attract enough attention to meaningfully raise awareness about all these various worthy causes? At least in the case of World Wetlands Day, the answer seems to be “no.”

These days, Google searches, Twitter “trending topics,” and other online activities provide some insight into public interest in various issues. And World Wetlands Day seems to leave rather few electronic breadcrumbs. The number of U.S. citizens who search for “World Wetlands Day” is too low to register at all. The number who conduct Google searches containing the term “wetlands” peaked in 2004 and has slowly but steadily eroded ever since. This even though the volume of news coverage of wetland topics has actually risen slightly over that same time frame.

So at least by this one measure, World Wetlands Day comes and goes each February without moving the needle on the ambient level of public interest. And this is the pattern for almost all of the commemorative occasions I mentioned in the first paragraph.

With one sharp exception: Earth Hour, the Johnny-come-lately of the eco-commemorative events. Earth Hour is about global warming, and in its brief history, the event has produced two sharp spikes in Google search activity -- two sharp spikes in public attention to global warming.

Clearly, the organizers of Earth Hour are doing something different from the people who bring us World Wetlands Day. And the difference between these two events boils down to two words, “awareness” and “action.” World Wetlands Day is an effort to raise awareness. Earth Hour is a call to action.

Symbolic action, to be sure. World Wildlife Fund, which sponsors Earth Hour, wants you to pledge to turn off your lights for an hour to send signal to officials that you want action on global warming. Even massive participation in Earth Hour would produce only the most negligible dent in global warming directly. But that’s actually beside the point.

The savvy organizers of Earth Hour know that everybody who turns their lights off for an hour will tell ten friends about their deed -- and that is the real payoff for the effort. Marketing professionals and researchers who study human behavior note that “word of mouth” almost always begin with a personal experience or act. People talk about products they have tried, they talk about places they have been -- and they talk about the conservation actions they have taken. They are far less likely to talk about things they simply read or see on TV.

The organizers of Earth Hour could have picked from any number of energy saving actions to promote, but they have wisely chosen to focus their efforts on one - a simple, symbolic act that everyone can do and everyone can explain. And for good measure, the deed is visible to those who pass by a darkened house. Doubtless, the organizers spent considerable time and effort wrestling the list of possible behaviors down to a single one, but they did -- and the trend data shows the reward.

Can the wetland conservation community do the same thing? Can we scrap World Wetlands Day as we know it today -- an incoherent spray of awareness-raising proclamations, edicts, press releases, events, fact sheets and other materials that share only the loosest thematic unity -- and instead select one single behavior to promote heavily?

When the topic is wetlands, it is a challenge to come up with something that everyone can do, everyone can explain, and that others can see. But the organizers of Earth Hour faced the same dilemma, too, in the beginning.

So here, in no particular order, are some thoughts. We could urge supporters to tie a green ribbon around a tree in their front yard. Or to stick a sign in the yard proudly proclaiming it is fertilizer and pesticide free. We could ask them to wear a sticker saying they had eaten organic and local today, or that they had made the call to Congress about finally getting that Clean Water Restoration Act moving.

Inspired? Got a better idea? Great -- visit my blog to share your thoughts. Stumped? I understand. But until we get collectively un-stumped, we can expect that downward dwindling trend wetlands interest to continue, and the uphill battle to protect this vital resource to get slowly get steeper.

Author's Bio: 

Eric Eckl runs Water Words That Work, LLC., an environmental communication company. The company has developed the Due Diligence Test Panel, a service that nature protection and pollution control organizations can use to pretest their environmental message materials prior to publication. Eric writes a popular water blog called Water Words That Work.