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The (Mis)use of Messaging in Biodiversity Loss Prevention

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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One of the challenges of biodiversity conservation is evoking a sense of place and an urgency of action to people. When we can’t even agree on a definition of what biodiversity is, it makes it all the more difficult to tell the public they should give a damn. Nonetheless, scientists keep hammering it in. Biodiversity good. Industry bad. The monotony of the debate can be deafening at times.

In my opinion, the problem is two-fold. Connecting people to the benefits of conservation – why it is in THEIR interest – and marketing the concept to industry and government. Both of these involve how we communicate these concepts to the public. At the core of this is how do people respond to messaging strategies. Wallace J. Nichols wrote a wonderful essay on Oceanophilia in 2009 where he urged that we need to more strongly grasp the neurological basis for conservation in order to really take a foothold on this issue.

“Economists, marketers and politicians recognize that deep-seated, inscrutable emotions, not rationality, are what rule human behavior. Aided by cognitive neuroscientists, these fields have begun to understand how our deepest, most primordial emotions drive virtually every decision we make, from what we buy to the candidates we elect.  To my way of thinking, if the lessons of cognitive neuroscience can be used for the crass purposes of influencing what people buy and how they vote, why not use such knowledge for ocean conservation?  I believe we can.  And, I believe we should.”

Ecosystem services are very real economic outcome from biodiversity conservation, but difficult to define and relate. The variety of benefits we receive extends not only to our personal well being (e.g. clean water, food, medicines, recreation), but also to protecting our property and infrastructure (e.g. coastal and soil reinforcement, storm buffer, flood prevention). These values are not easily calculable, though. Some services are obvious, such as food, raw materials, erosion prevention and soil formation. Others are less obvious, such as nutrient cycling, climate regulation, and genetic resources. Over a decade ago, Constanza and colleagues (1997) attempted to evaluate the worth of various ecosystem service categories by extensively reviewing the literature and their market value. While it is a very rough approximation, they estimated we receive about $33.3 trillion (in 1994 dollars) worth of services from the environment. A breakdown, courtesy of the World Resources Institute, is provided below to get a sense of the contributions.

This is clearly a vital component of the everyday components of modern human living. One of the major findings of the extensive Millenium Assessment report in 2003 was that “although many individuals benefit from the actions and activities that lead to biodiversity loss and ecosystem change, the costs borne by society of such changes is often higher.” In other words, the costs associated with human alterations to ecosystems are often high enough or irreversible such that the monetary impact is greater than benefit that we would receive. In the United States alone, the ecosystem services in Constanza and colleagues (1997) were valued at nearly twice the 1994 US gross national product of $18 trillion. This new way of thinking was revolutionary because we could communicate easily in the language of money – a language that most people can grasp. Or, at least, it should have been.

While the science was speaking to economics and ecology, the communication hasn’t changed in decades. Environmentalists often use a sort of awe and scare tactic. Lush, flowery edens with cascading waterfalls give way to barren, smoggy wastelands with dramatic narration, “What happens when this all goes away?”  The idea is that the viewer hopefully is shocked into submission and goes off and does something to save the planet. Most likely donate money to a cause or sign a petition to stop proposed environmentally harmful practices.

How can the sciences of economics and ecology merge to produce an appropriate message that people can relate to about protecting ecosystems and preserving biodiversity? Obviously, there is no easy answer and messages resonate differently with different types of people.  Negative messaging tells us that we out of control and there is something wrong with us and we can only be better if do X. Conversely, positive messaging empowers us, puts the decision-making control in our hands without telling us that we will be negatively impacted unless do X. Each communication strategy has its audience and can be context-dependent, but in many studies of health-changing behavior positive messaging tends to get better results.

But crafting a message for someone without understanding their social environment can be misleading. Many people will behave in ways that harm them, even if they know better, just because it is what the rest of their world is doing and they don’t want to stand out. Blanton and colleagues (2001) call this deviance-regulation. How people regulate themselves tends to be based more on perceived social consequences of conforming. To illustrate this, let me highlight one of the tests in the Blanton paper. They asked individuals how likely they are to get a flu shot (scale of 1 to 7, highest being most likely) after reading articles that framed the issue positively (getting the shot is a considerate and responsible thing to do) or negatively (people who do not get shots are selfish, careless, and irresponsible). Another article that was read set the stage for the normative behavior in the population as either healthy (most got the shot) or unhealthy (only a few got the shot).

As you can see, people reacted more strongly to the deviant message frame. That is, when the behavior was the norm, negative messaging garnered a stronger response. On the other hand, when behavior was not the norm positive messaging garnered the stronger response. The message is placed in the context of what the rest of the target population’s social environment is doing. This is a powerful concept for understanding why negative message campaigns are not always working in biodiversity protection. Take for instance the following video trailer for the feature-length documentary, The Call of Life. It evokes a world in peril entirely caused by human activities. Though it appears well-produced and features many respected and well-known scientific individuals, it is classic environmentalist negative messaging.

Who is the audience of this film? Is it intended for the fence-sitting public? If we understand their message in the context of deviance-regulation, this film would do well in a population that was supportive of biodiversity loss protection. Unfortunately, that is not the case in the United States. People tend to be split on environmental issues down political lines (with notable exceptions, of course) and this country is more or less split fairly evenly along the political spectrum. So, this message will resonate with half of the population, except that is in the half that already lives in a world where they supportive about biodiversity loss prevention. In other words, they are preaching to the choir.

Environmental messages need to break through the communication barrier to the other half of the population that doesn’t know that they care about the environment. Since they are not supportive of the issue, negative messaging does not easily sway them. And this is where I believe ecosystem services valuation can play a much stronger role. Those who are unsupportive of biodiversity loss issues are more than likely to be supportive of saving money and property, uncovering new medical advances or more efficiently and safely gathering raw materials. This is positive messaging. By changing your behavior – going against the norm – they view themselves trendsetters, improving their lives.

ResearchBlogging.orgBlanton, H., Stuart, A., & Van den Eijnden, R. (2001). An Introduction to Deviance-Regulation Theory: The Effect of Behavioral Norms on Message Framing Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 27 (7), 848-858 DOI: 10.1177/0146167201277007

Costanza, R., d’Arge, R., de Groot, R., Farber, S., Grasso, M., Hannon, B., Limburg, K., Naeem, S., O’Neill, R., Paruelo, J., Raskin, R., Sutton, P., & van den Belt, M. (1997). The value of the world’s ecosystem services and natural capital Nature, 387 (6630), 253-260 DOI: 10.1038/387253a0

Kevin Zelnio About the Author: Kevin has a M.Sc. degree in biology from Penn State, a B.Sc. in Evolution and Ecology from University of California, Davis, and has worked at as a researcher at several major marine science institutions. His broad academic research interests have encompassed population genetics, biodiversity, community ecology, food webs and systematics of invertebrates at deep-sea chemosynthetic environments and elsewhere. Kevin has described several new species of anemones and shrimp. He is now a freelance writer, independent scientist and science communications consultant living near the Baltic coast of Sweden in a small, idyllic village.

Kevin is also the assistant editor and webmaster for Deep Sea News, where he contributes articles on marine science. His award-winning writing has been appeared in Seed Magazine, The Open Lab: Best Writing on Science Blogs (2007, 2009, 2010), Discovery Channel, ScienceBlogs, and Environmental Law Review among others. He spends most of his time enjoying the company of his wife and two kids, hiking, supporting local breweries, raising awareness for open access, playing guitar and songwriting. You can read up more about Kevin and listen to his music at his homepage, where you can also view his CV and Résumé, and follow him twitter and Google +.

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The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






Comments 7 Comments

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  1. 1. Dredd 11:23 am 01/5/2012

    This post is true in many other areas too. What is interesting is that this static and conundrum comes at a time when what it means to be “human” is being redefined.

    But then again, that may also prove difficult to “message” properly.

    http://ecocosmology.blogspot.com/2011/11/on-new-meaning-of-human-2.html

    Link to this
  2. 2. jebyrnes 11:33 pm 01/5/2012

    It’s been interesting to watch all of this within the biodiversity-ecosystem function field. What we are trying to do is explicitly link the loss of species or genetic diversity (with a real clear metric such as number of species) to declines in ecosystem functions such as primary production or carbon cycling. And yet I feel like the field hasn’t had much of an impact on conservation communication despite some of our best efforts. Fortunately there are awesome folk like Patty Balvanera and Emmett Duffy who are starting to connect things more to services, but, it’s been fascinating for me to watch the divide.

    Link to this
  3. 3. Googol 5:42 am 01/6/2012

    Kevin, thank you for this article.

    While I completely agree with your sentiment that we preach (at best) to the faithful congregation with stories of hellfire, brimstone, calamity and disaster, I am very far from convinced that the valuation of ecosystem services will change anything for anyone – far less for the biodiversity that we would wish to conserve. My objections are many, but fundamentally the link between the emergent property of the ecosystem (benefit to humans) with the component parts of the ecosystem (biodiversity) is at best tenuous. Thus conserving a service implies very little about what (or if) biodiversity is conserved.

    What, then, is the alternative?

    Telling us to change our ways or land up in hell works only if we accept that the hell described is credible, less desirable than plausible alternatives, and avoidable. It’s very difficult indeed to convince affluent citizens of post-industrial nations that their lives will suffer if biodiversity goes on going down the tubes. After all, we missed the 2010 target, with what result? I’m far better off today, and my environment is cleaner, and air tickets to the ends of the Earth are far cheaper, than when the Rio Conventions were constructed. Biodiversity loss has benefited my society and yours, and the global economy, and as a consequence gloom and doom are frankly not credible. And as we know, trying to motivate someone by outlining credible, nasty, and avoidable futures doesn’t always work – “put down the gun or I will shoot you” does not always lead to the outcome one might hope for.

    What about holding out hope of a desirable future, then? Can we imagine together a credible and attractive future where humanity is living in dignity and in a sustainable, mutually beneficial relationship with the rest of the living world?

    If hell fails to motivate, can we try describing heaven?

    Link to this
  4. 4. Kevin Zelnio in reply to Kevin Zelnio 8:41 am 01/6/2012

    Jebyrnes, Sadly, we desperately need to make these connections relevant to the public and policy makers. This is a case where the science, communication and policy all need to move together rapidly, I don’t feel policy can wait on communications to frame the right message they resonate with while the communicators are waiting on the science to work out the details. We have the general idea, it’s actually a very powerful idea. And, it’s not the only idea for positive messaging, but one I think we should experiment more with communicating.

    I got a brochure in my inbox after writing this from a UK-based sustainability communications group called Futerra who has a nicely down pamphlet strikingly similar to what I’ve written about. I would like to see what you and your colleagues doing the science think about it and if it is something you would share with students or fid otherwise useful: http://www.futerra.co.uk/downloads/Branding_Biodiversity.pdf

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  5. 5. Kevin Zelnio in reply to Kevin Zelnio 10:57 am 01/6/2012

    Googol, thanks for your comment! I guess I’ll have to disagree with you that the links between “benefits to humans” and “biodiversity” is tenuous at best. I think there is a case to be made that we just haven’t done as good a job as I believe we can do. It’s not perfect, but I think the more we all discuss it, the clearer the framing will become.

    I think the point in your second paragraph is well-taken. For most of us, our lives appear unaffected no matter what happens! That is why it is hard to get conservation messages across to the average person. And yes, doom and gloom scenarios appear exaggerated and not credible, which is why we need to shift the frame of the message. But, i think describing heaven runs into the same problem. For the average joe the plumber, their lives are fine. How does preventing biodiversity loss create a better world for them? It is too indirect (which is maybe why you believe the links were tenuous?) but still relevant. We need to find ways to speak to their ego, perhaps. It is a noble thing to do. This worked during the Teddy Roosevelt era.

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  6. 6. Bob LaVelle 5:32 pm 02/29/2012

    Kevin, thanks for a thought provoking article.

    If you think biodiversity is definitionally obscure and difficult to build traction around, try making the concept of “ecosystem services” clear and motivating. Try using the construction “ecosystem services” at a gathering populated by “average joe the plumbers” and watch carefully as their eyes glaze over. Be prepared to prop them up as the blood drains from their faces.

    I’m not sure how tenuous “the link between the emergent property of the ecosystem (benefit to humans) with the component parts of the ecosystem (biodiversity)” is. I have no evidence to muster in this regard. But I do have a pretty clear idea that appealing to the “what’s in it for me” psychology that pervades American culture and economics is perpetuating the status quo, which was so aptly labeled by the late, great Ray Anderson as “an opiate.” I don’t think there is a better example of an advocate for environmental protection than Mr. Anderson was among the captains of industry, and he used an “all of the above” approach when appealing to his peers, whom he frequently addressed as “my fellow plunderers.” He used the money his company saved by adopting environmental safeguards and the goodwill he created / found in the marketplace as carrots and he used the details of devastation of the natural world as a stick. It was as though he wanted to leave no tactic untried in his crusade to reach zero environmental impact as an industrialist and no sales technique unexploited in his environmentalist crusade among his peer group.

    I have a sense that a larger reframing is needed, one that may take a generation or more to put in place, wherein we lift our view above self interest. We have to focus our gaze beyond ourselves. It doesn’t make sense can’t continue to cater to the human-centric bias that has gotten into this mess. It seems to me we must engender a new world-view and to try to mitigate the human-centric bias in favor of one based in the reality of our thoroughly contingent and interdependent relationship with the natural world. We must also begin to see, for example, that the presence of the late, great Black Rhinos in the wild was simply “better” than the eternal absence of the Black Rhino, and that this has nothing to do with human welfare. The Call of Life film contains a bit about human reliance on bees. This sort of illumination is easy to grasp and is absolutely unarguable. No bees, no pollination. No pollination, no food. I find this a powerful example of the contingency that comprises reality hidden by a culture of hustlers.

    The critical issue is that we may not have a generation to spend rewiring human psychology. We’re killing off species and compromising life on Earth at such a pace that we seem to be out of time. It’s already too late for the Black Rhinos. How much time is there for us to perfect our approach and consider the nuances and develop happy talk and protect biodiversity? I don’t know. The feeling I get from majority of peer-reviewed life science research, not much.

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  7. 7. Kevin Zelnio in reply to Kevin Zelnio 8:54 pm 03/13/2012

    Bob, thank you for comment and apologize it has taken me so long to respond. My son was hospitalized for over 2 weeks with pneumonia and I needed to attend to him. I appreciate your perspective and not being rude!

    I agree that using the term ecosystem services would be ill advisable, but I think I was referring more to the idea. How to translate that requires some experimentation. I would also agree with your caricature of Mr. Anderson. I’ve always been a pluralist and firmly believe in experimenting with communications strategies. Hence this post, really. Perhaps the key is to really focus on personal narratives that grasp people’s attention and – like a good book – teaches them connections and concepts without them ever realizing it (i.e. the bees example you bring up would be a good example). But I am unsure if we are ready to move away from a human-centric view. I think it is a good idea, but environmentalists for decades tried to show the world how wrong they are by holding the natural realm in a mystical, high regard as separate from humans. Something innocent that we are destroying. This focus, I would argue, hasn’t gotten us anywhere and I’m more interested in problem solving at this point – which involves talking with a wide variety of stakeholders. And, it is a very hard thing to do. But I think this type of conversation can move things faster along than peer-reviewed study after peer-reviewed study. We just need to strategically implement new ideas and winnow down the ones that don’t work. Eventually we should find pockets where certain strategies or narratives are successful.

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