December 12, 2018
By Marc-Antoine Dunais

To protect biodiversity, maybe we should talk less about saving it

People need to understand that biodiversity is fundamental to many daily things they love.

What are we talking about when we explain ‘saving biodiversity’ to people in the street? This is not about protecting nature in the way environmental organisations typically frame the issue – for example, vulnerable but ecologically important places that need to be protected or endangered wildlife that cannot survive without urgent actions. These are not simple concepts to explain but when it comes to biodiversity, the canvas is seemingly limitless – just try to imagine explaining the fundamental tenets of life on Earth in a few sentences!

The tricky business of talking about biodiversity

To follow up such a statement with a tentative explanation for ‘saving biodiversity’ might sound a trifle presumptuous, but for the purpose of referring to a definition, it is a risk worth taking – so here goes nothing: ‘saving biodiversity’ is about making sure that all the moving parts of this extraordinarily complex engine that is nature continue to do their job properly.

A slightly more detailed (but arguably abstruse) version could read something like this: maintaining the natural linkages between species and ecosystems, subject to the evolutionary pressures that make biodiversity a web of life that is constantly reconfiguring itself in unpredictable and imaginative ways (excuse the dramatic flourish).

Talking about biodiversity is likely to send shivers down the spines of the hardiest of campaigners — and rightly so. There are few limpid and evocative definitions of biodiversity that people can easily relate to.

Biodiversity is kinda fuzzy for most people. It’s not something that can be easily observed as such (you can’t exactly walk into Kruger National Park and ask someone to point you to a place where you can go ‘watch biodiversity’). Just like climate change, it will always be somewhat abstract, the same way that we don’t look at a teak writing desk and think of the marvel of forests, or take a banana from a fruit bowl and ponder about agroforestry. Mostly, the exquisitely complex biological orchestra that made the existence of these items possible remains in the shadows.

Biodiversity vs. impala

That makes it difficult to love biodiversity the same way we are enthralled by singular manifestations of it, such as jaw-dropping coral in the Great Barrier Reef or an impala gracefully bounding across the savanna.

Indeed, according to Michael Novacek we tend to place greater value on the more familiar and charismatic stuff nature provides (the ‘wow’ factor) rather than the nebulous networks of species and ecosystems working together – such as insects, worms, fungi, and microbes among others.

From understanding to concern

‘Getting’ biodiversity is one thing – seeing its’ protection as a priority quite another. And let’s not get into actually doing something about it. Yes, even if we were able to show that people are inclined to state their support for a biodiversity campaign, that stated intent does not necessarily translate into behaviours (the intention-behaviour gap).

And then we have a paradox which makes for an uncomfortable truth: because of the latency of the impacts of biodiversity loss, we have proven to be incredibly resilient to that shock. Many ecosystems around the world are rapidly deteriorating, and perhaps none so precipitously as coral reefs and freshwater habitats, mostly as a result of growing consumption. Yet many of us have never been so spoilt for food choices and comfort. Biodiversity may underpin many facets of our quality of living, but its freefall has yet to fundamentally reduce how many of us go on about day-to-day.

So how do we influence people to care about biodiversity in the face of such a disconnect?

Maybe the answer is, you look beyond getting people to understand biodiversity.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not against revealing the wondrous (net)workings of the Earth. But knowing is only one step in a process to activate people to take tangible actions. What follows are some thoughts on how to approach this:

  1. First, people need to understand that biodiversity is fundamental to many daily things they love. Because this connection is far from obvious and many people are not yet feeling the impacts of biodiversity loss, we need to provide simple examples of how exactly biodiversity makes possible many things we take for granted (and how life would be without them). These examples must be locally relevant, adapted to where our audiences live. Here’s a story with universal appeal – growing cacao and coffee the traditional way without removing overstory and understory plants provides a home for migrant and resident forest birds, which in turn control populations of pest insects. Around the world, many of our most common foods such as onions, tomatoes and almonds owe their existence to wild bees (whose populations are plummeting). In the African tropics, one story that drives home the importance of biodiversity is how intact forests (including their biodiversity) can reduce the likelihood of outbreaks of fatal infectious diseases such as ebola. There are many such stories that can be told, taking care they are based on sound science (Google Scholar is your friend).
  2. Dramatic facts about how much biodiversity we have frittered away (and how much we’re likely to destroy by 2050/2100 on the current trajectory) need to be heard, but should be used cautiously. People are very risk averse – which means that for those who care about life on Earth, news that over the last century we’ve lost vertebrate species at a rate that is on average up to 100 times higher than ‘normal’ is going to be highly distressing, especially if the trend is described as ‘biological annihilation’. In the case of negative news on climate change impacts, there is a growing body of work that shows people get disengaged by such information. So these facts are not useless – they help to build concern, but should be paired with tangible solutions.
  3. Let’s not confuse biodiversity and the ‘great outdoors’ when trying to appeal to people – many spectacular places that evoke nature or wilderness for people are not necessarily particularly biodiverse compared to reefs, wetlands or rainforests. More biodiversity will make for a greater experience (in an utilitarian sense), but the gorgeous curves of a sand dune in Mali are here to stay, regardless of biodiversity loss, and so are the vertiginous canyons of the American southwest and the azure waters in a Greek island cove. We need to be cautious and not necessarily describe biodiversity as an experiential thing.
  4. There is a reason why few organisations offer donation buttons on their websites that read ‘click here to save biodiversity’ – we’re not built as humans to respond to such abstract calls to action. Once people understand the significance of biodiversity in their life (or they inherently value it), we must provide them with tangible and actionable solutions that are outlets for that concern. One entry point is food: from palm oil in the tropics to beef on the Amazon frontier, several foodstuffs are playing an oversized role in destroying some of the most biodiverse areas on Earth. These foods often end up on our plate. Reducing the barriers for people to make smart choices about what they eat could be the most powerful way for them to slow down the erosion of biodiversity in places where that food comes from. There is, of course, a caveat – this needs to happen at scale to actually make a difference, which is another topic of itself.

Finally, a word of caution: bear in mind that getting people to make lasting changes requires a nuanced understanding of the (often) emotional and social reasons why they make decisions. We’ll come back to that in another post!

About the author

Marc-Antoine Dunais,
Founder and Managing Director

Inveterate jack-of-all-trades with one foot in sustainability, another in communications and marketing, and a more recent appendage in behaviour change design.

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