NB: I try to keep this blog non-academic, however this blog post is adapted from an essay I recently wrote, so a bit of theory might sneak in. I haven’t referenced it traditionally but have included a further reading section at the end if anything discussed here takes your fancy.
Biodiversity. Important it is. For why? I hear you ask. If you keep up with the news you may of heard biodiversity being included in the “existential crisis” narrative along with the much publicised climate change. Biodiversity at is core definition means the number and variety of species present in the world, or indeed in a given eco-system. This of course varies depending on the environment you are in.
The study of biodiversity can tell us how populations have changed, about the specific numbers of specific bugs in a specific area – great! But how does this tie in to the lives of everyday people and why, exactly, should we care?
By its very nature, biodiversity is a multi-faceted entity. We learn about food chains and food webs at school but understanding the level of complexity involved in the natural world is an entirely different animal. Damian Carrington, of the Guardian wrote a rather excellent article on the subject (and with some lovely illustrations too) last year.
Indeed, ecological history teaches us that we often don’t understand the levels of inter-connectivity and importance until something goes awry. Does it take losing something for us to act in a meaningful manner? Or are we capable of more altruistic, long term, rational thinking?
Dissemination of information is also a complex beast. Underneath communication and its effects on individuals and policy makers, lies a complex web of psychology, social norms and plain old circumstance. After all, multiple factors underpin an individual’s behavioural decisions, and those behavioural decisions, when enacted en masse, can have a huge impact on social and policy change.
In an ever more complex world of communication, how do scientists and environmental organisations make clear, salient points that actually encourage the public to behave in a pro-environmental manner?
We only need to examine the successes of the issue of plastic pollution in recent years to underline the narrative of the importance of sustained communication. As with many of the issues that capture media attention the pace of change is rapid, making it difficult for academia to catch up, yet observable changes to policy and society are increasingly evident. Yet how does this translate to more complex issues? After all we can all relate to those (now iconic) images of animals and plastic, would the effect be the same for issues that require explanation?
Scholars suggest that pro-environmental behaviour is motivated by either hedonic, gain or normative reasons. In other words, people will be motivated to engage in pro-environmental behaviour because it makes them feel good, saves them money, or they view it as the right thing to do. And, in some cases there may even be conflict between these reasons, like say, you’re dying for your caffeine fix but forgot your reusable mug (I’ve been there – and bought the coffee anyway, yeah I felt guilty but you know… coffee).
The conflict between these goals also presents us with a challenge as a wider society. How then, if we are naturally selfish and short-sighted, do we inspire large scale action on issues such as biodiversity loss? Studies around social dilemmas show the benefits of cooperation, you may be better as an individual if you behave selfishly, but as a collective all will be a little better off. Then, surely those that make decisions for us as a collective should have some responsibility for our actions, i.e. policy change informed by science.
Our understanding of science can have an interesting and often polarising effect on our behaviour too – generally a positive attitude to science is linked with sustainable consumption. Yet, belief in science can have a tendency to absolve individuals of a sense of responsibility. The apparent gap in concern versus behaviour has been widely studied and is incredibly complex. Linking personal connection and the power to change could be vital in future communications.
As with most global environmental problems the nature and complexity of biodiversity loss can be challenging to comprehend. So how do we communicate complex scientific information in a way that can easily be understood by the everyone whilst at the same time elicit an emotional response from our audience? This is perhaps one of the key successes of recent plastic pollution campaigns; the issue of plastics is visceral, visible and something pretty much everyone can relate to their day-to-day lives.
One solution it would seem is to make it a socially acceptable, or indeed deplorable not to, behave pro-environmentally; previous research indicates that social norms (what people expect of us and vice versa) impact a wide range of behaviours and that these behaviours are incredibly diverse across countries and demographics.
So how do scientists, charities and interest groups then, make engaging, thought provoking, and perhaps most importantly, a long-lasting, impact on the often very diverse general public? Inevitably some groups in society are more likely engage (for example, in general women more so than men) and there will always be a section of society who exhibit no concern for the environment whatsoever. Even within environmental movements there are different levels to which people engage, firstly, there are committed activists, those for whom the movement becomes a core part of their existence (to use a stereotype: hippies). And secondly, movement supporters, those who are willing, within reason, to take some action and bear some cost (I’d like to think the majority of rational society where the environment is concerned).
The two obvious mechanisms then are education and publicity or indeed a combination of the two. Yet it is problematic to isolate the effect of the media from other social and cultural influences like education or religion and it becomes even more complicated when the particular issues result in contention or deeply emotional responses. And indeed increased education does not in itself bring about pro-environmental behaviour.
In addition, public education is largely driven by policy and is often slow to change, policy is often driven by public interest, movements and lobbying. Thus presenting us with a chicken and egg dilemma – what comes first, policy or individual behaviour? How do we initiate public interest? Where does the responsibility lie?
This is where publicity comes into play. But how do we ensure that campaigns and movements are getting the right publicity? And how do we measure the successes and disappointments? Navigating the media, especially as it becomes more complex and instantaneous in the form of social media, is a massive challenge.
There is often a focus on specific issues at the expense of other issues in the mainstream media, which may affect peoples’ perceptions of, and likelihood of taking up pro-environmental actions. Without a doubt lessons could be learned from the successes of previous campaigns and their combined effect – success of the recent attention on plastic pollution can almost certainly be attributed to the combined and sustained efforts of media outlets and charitable organisations alike.
Biodiversity in general will undoubtedly benefit from a more pro-environmental societies, but also poses the also challenging issue of preservation or restoration of what was lost, I hesitate to use the word conservation, as for many years in the UK this has meant conservation of man-made landscapes, and also implies a sense of stasis, which is the opposite of what a dynamic living system is about. Re-wilding and the issues around it are something that present us with a challenge but also a huge opportunity to enhance our natural world. Again this plays on our deep-seated emotions (who’s afraid of the big bad wolf?) and would need huge policy changes in some cases to be driven forward.
It seems like a no-brainer really – people need to work together. In order to successfully publicise and bring about long term change, scientists, campaigners and educators need to collaborate in order to bring about successful communications of biodiversity research and key issues. Interdisciplinary research is needed to strike a balance between the “hard” science and social science aspects of communicating the importance of the diversity of life to human societies. Let’s also think about learning from the past – further research into the successes and lessons learned from previous campaigns could be essential. By taking a collective stance and working in conjunction with one another to achieve the common goal of recognising the importance of the diversity of life, perhaps we can inspire significant change, not only for the sake of human societies but also for the survival of the planet as we know it.
If this wet your appetite, check out these academic-types:
Anderson, A., (1997) Media Culture and Environment Routledge
Culiberg, B., Elgaaied-Gambier, L., (2016) Going green to fit in – understanding the impact of social norms on pro-environmental behaviour, a cross-cultural approach International Journal of Consumer Studies Vol: 40 (2), pp: 179-185
Dawes, R. M., Messick, D. M., (2010) Social Dilemmas International Journal of Psychology Vol:35 pp: 111-116
Farrow, K., Grolleau, G., Ibanez, L., (2017) Social Norms and Pro-environmental Behavior: A Review of the Evidence Ecological Economics vol: 140
Kellstedt, P., Zahran, S., Vedlitz, A. Personal efficacy, the information environment, and attitudes toward global warming and climate change in the United States Risk Anal., 28 (2008), pp. 113-125
Kollmuss, A., & Agyeman, J., (2002) Mind the Gap: Why do people act environmentally and what are the barriers to pro-environmental behavior?, Environmental Education Research, 8:3, 239-260
Steg, L., Bolderdijk, J., Keizer, K., Perlaviciute, G., (2014) An integrated Framework for Encouraging Pro-Environmental Behaviour: The role of values, situational factors and goals Journal of Environmental Psychology Vol:38 pp:104-115
Stern, P. C., Dietz, T., ABel, T., Guagnano, G. A., Kalof, L., (1999) A Value-Belief-Norm Theory of Support for Social Movements: The Case of Environmentalism Human Ecology Review Vol 6, No.2.
Vainio, A., Paloniemi, R., (2014) The complex role of attitudes toward science in pro-environmental consumption in the Nordic countries Ecological Economics Vol:108 pp: 18-27