Communicating nature – or not?

For the past months, I participated in a very interesting debate between natural resources managers on LinkedIn, which started with the question “is biodiversity dead?” The debate revolved around the reasons why the natural resources management community seem to have a real job in explaining to the rest of the world that nature is important. I then found another, equally interesting, LinkedIn discussion based on the question of “how to engage the masses for resource management solutions for the future”. As the two debates were in some ways similar, I analysed the more than 180 comments in both discussions.

We all agree that there is a need for behavioural change. There are too many people on this world to maintain status quo, and as we cannot create another planet or get rid of a large number of people, we have to look for other ways to live with nature. The problem we identified as natural resource managers is that we seem to be unable to convince “the others” about this need to change our behaviour. Mind you – my wife reminded me that in general we know a lot more than our parents did about our interactions with nature, so we are starting to get there, but it takes time to generate behavioural change.

We recognise that the public is multi-faceted, and that the situation varies from place to place, but we generally agree on the main challenges:

  • The concept of biological diversity and ecosystem health is too complex. On the one hand the experts speak in technical, scientific language that is not readily understood by lay-people and we are not able to explain why global issues matter to the individual. On the other hand, people believe the issues are so difficult to deal with that there is a reluctance to even get involved. Another way of looking at this is that a lot of people do not see how nature in their backyard relates to the global discussions about the future of the earth.
  • The market economy that drives most of the world is short-sighted and looks at quick profit rather than long term sustainable yields. As a result, politicians do not feel the need to take long-term impacts too serious either. This lack of political will prevails particularly at the national and international level.
  • There are many positive examples at the local level, both institutional and individual, but they are not given enough air-time. We seem to have a problem in showing positive messages and using the case studies to bring home the success stories, and still focus on “doom and gloom” scenario of loss of species and ecosystem degradation.
  • There is a lack of leadership in the nature conservation world, with many organisations preaching their own form of religion and not enough coherence and coordination amongst the many players. This confuses the public, and dilutes potential strategic action.
  • A large portion of the world now lives in cities, and more and more young people have lost their connection with nature. Education must help to restore the link with the natural environment, where possible.
  • Selling something that people not really want is like pushing a heavy rock uphill. We need consumers to ask for change, rather than us demanding that consumers change. Scientists are not good at marketing, and we have not managed to find the right jargon and methods to sell the message.
  • Part of this is to do with recognising values and making people aware of the potential profits or cost reduction that is a result of better management of natural resources. TEEB has started to define the values of nature and the cost of degradation, but we need to do more.

What do we need to do to proceed, and to accelerate the level of progress? We need to explain how the global species and ecosystem crisis affects all of us, and I have seven recommendations on how to do this:

  1. Better communication – simpler, demand-driven messages, using new media channels to reach young people.
  2. Break down the complexity – translate global challenges into local issues and make all people realise that we are part of nature
  3. Improved delivery of our messages – link up with marketing and media experts to make our messages more interesting.
  4. Positive messaging – people respond better to good news, and there are many positive stories out there, especially successful local case studies.
  5. Practical education – link theory to practice and get students out into nature where possible.
  6. Define values and economic costs and benefits –shows CEOs the impact on their balance sheet
  7. Generate political will – show decision-makers why nature is important. A group of high-profile Ambassadors for Nature would help to influence politicians and other leaders.

A challenge, but if we do not get it right, the gloom and doom scenario may become reality!

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