Feel the love

13 January 2011 | Article

Communication messages about the need to save biodiversity should focus less on ‘loss’ and more on ‘love’ says Laurie Bennett.

One of the most powerful points coming out of Nagoya, made both explicitly and also hidden in the maelstrom of debate around biodiversity policy, is that communication is fundamental to the success of biodiversity conservation.

So it’s important we get it right. But the evidence—the fact we’re losing species at 1,000 times the natural rate of extinction— would suggest that current communications haven’t been getting through. And when you look closely at the messages being used, it becomes increasingly clear why.

By far the most common message from biodiversity campaigners has been centred on ‘Loss’—increasingly urgent appeals against the accelerating destruction of habitats and species. Pictures of charred and smoking ground punctuated with severed trunks or lonely looking primates staring mournfully into a camera lens. Images of all-things-great-and-small stamped emphatically with ‘under threat’ disclaimers. Most Loss messages end with questions designed to grip you by the moral fibres and hurl you into a frenzy of outraged conservation action: “Can you stand by and watch this happen?”

Sadly, the evidence would suggest we can. And sadder still, it’s not all that surprising why.

The problem is that these messages don’t resonate with the vast majority of people they are aimed at. For a relatively small ‘biocentric’ audience, for whom nature has intrinsic value, Loss messages provide an obvious imperative for action. These people make up the majority of campaigners, activists and communicators who are already vocal and active on conservation issues. But the people they aim their megaphones at think differently. Most people value nature for how it makes them feel. They make daily decisions based on emotions and habits, not rationale or logic. And global mass extinction messages, while statistically correct, make them feel powerless, not powerful.

The irony is that nature itself tends to inspire much more positive feelings in just about everybody. No one actually cherishes extinction, and everyone would rather it wasn’t happening. If you ask them, most people even want to help.

Love of nature for most people is about awe and wonder, senses and sights, not ecosystem services and extinction stories. It is about childhood experiences, awe-inspiring nature documentaries, and our instinctive fascination with the workings of the natural world.

The ‘Love’ message trumps the ‘Loss’ message for grabbing the public’s attention. Inspiring people towards opportunity is a more powerful driver for action than scaring them away from the consequences. It is by celebrating conservation that initiatives like the International Year of Biodiversity have been able to begin to capture the public’s imagination and keep their attention long enough to raise awareness of biodiversity loss and the actions that need to be taken.

But it’s not as simple as Love vs Loss; there is also ‘Need’. With the recent publication of The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) report, we also now have the means to calculate the enormous economic value of nature. From clean air and water to fuel and medicine, we can put a tangible dollar sign against our dependence on nature. And the number has a lot of noughts on it.

The seemingly clear choice of message for communicators is to combine the Love and Need messages; inspire people, and prove how valuable nature can be. But it’s not that simple.

Whilst policy and decision makers require a rational economic argument to take action, the public do not. People don’t think rationally, and there is a real danger of undermining the Love message by assigning a cold, hard financial value to things people care about.

Today we are no longer arguing the science of biodiversity loss. Nor are we disputing the far-reaching consequences it will have. Instead our challenge is to sell conservation to the millions of people around the world who can take action. The sales message doesn’t need to explain the complex science of biodiversity, nor repeat well-worn warnings around species and habitat loss. Instead biodiversity must represent the awe and wonder that we feel for the natural world. Paired with relevant and local calls to action, ‘Love’ can quite literally conquer all.

The surprising success of Nagoya gives us license to be more optimistic. An unprecedented political accord, underpinned by the most detailed ecological and economic rationale for action we have ever had, means the stage is set. All that remains is for communicators to choose whether to shout the old messages louder, or to leverage nature’s privileged position as the world’s most inspiring story.

Laurie Bennett is Head of Strategy at Futerra Sustainability Communications and a member of IUCN’s Commission on Education and Communication.