Helping nature to help us

New research paves way for an integrated messaging on biodiversity

In 2010 the representatives of the 193 signatory nations of UN Convention on Biological Diversity met at the Tenth Conference of the Parties (COP10) in Nagoya. They heard that despite some notable successes none of nations had fully met their national targets for achieving the significant reduction in the rate of biodiversity loss which they had agreed to achieve when the CBD emerged out of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. One reason for the failure was that few people actually understood what biodiversity was or why preserving it mattered. During 2010, in advance of the COP10 the CBD led a world-wide effort to increase awareness in the UN mandated International Year of Biodiversity (IYB). The international campaign operated under a by-line of ‘Biodiversity is Life’ and brand mark developed by leading green brand consultants Futerra which tried to express the relevance of biodiversity to people.

IYBThe IYB campaign had three key aims; to highlight the importance of biodiversity; to reflect achievements under the convention; and to call for a redoubling of efforts to reduce the rate of loss. These three main messages were developed in the light of evidence that suggested that people did not necessarily respond to negative stories of environmental loss by becoming more engaged.  For example in her thesis on the myth of apathy Renee Lertzeman argued that people’s inaction was not necessarily to do with either lack of knowledge or a lack on interest. Instead her work pointed to how people become anxious when confronted by environmental issues beyond their ability to influence and the likelihood of them using avoidance rather than action as a coping strategy. In the IYB the CBD approach to addressing this was to use a balanced messaging which used ‘success stories’ to demonstrate how positive improvements could make a real difference.

The IYB brand messaging was refined in another significant way. Many people, if they considered biodiversity at all, regarded it to be far away and not relevant to their everyday lives. The CBD communication stressed the importance of biodiversity for the health, wealth and wellbeing of people. This emphasis has been subject to much debate; many in the nature conservation sector pointing out the ethical argument that by its existence nature has intrinsic value and has a right to co-exist on our planet without it having to benefit people. However with human societies feeling the increasing impact of human population growth and resource demands this argument holds very limited sway with people in power. For the most part, following the work of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, the primary way of highlighting the importance of biodiversity to influential policy and financial circles has been through the Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (BES) approach. This highlights how vital services; such as the cycling of nutrients and provision of fresh water are provided by nature, underpinned by biodiversity, and that these services benefit people and society. While not without controversy the BES approach to valuing nature has become central to biodiversity policy and has been enshrined in the Aichi Targets for 2020 which emerged from the COP10. However the Aichi Targets highlighted other significant issues, including recognising the need to achieve a sea-change in the level engagement. Indeed the Strategic Goal A includes four distinct targets all intended to ‘mainstream’ awareness and responses across government and wider society.

At the end of 2010 Futerra produced a small pamphlet called Branding biodiversity – the new nature message. This was a synthesis of the company’s research and response to biodiversity messaging and it was soon unofficially adopted by the Convention. As with the IYB messaging Branding biodiversity placed an emphasis on Love not Loss. It argued that public campaigns would achieve more by highlighting intrinsic values and our love, awe and wonder of nature rather than focusing, full on, on human destruction and extinction. However for many this has left a pregnant question about how the scale and rate of loss was to be dealt with if it was relegated to a secondary message; indeed since 2010 many nature NGOs have continued to employ campaigns that focus on the scale and rate of loss and on pending extinction of species.

In fact Futerra’s Branding biodiversity ‘manifesto’ was more sophisticated; it actually identified four potential elements; along with Love and Loss there was also Need and Action. Our Need for nature was epitomised as the essential services provided by nature which were being incorporated into the BES narrative. Messages about Action focused on highlighting that for conservation to happen then things need to change and that means getting involved.

llnaWithin this analysis Futerra argued there were actually two principal narratives. They argued Love+Action was the right combination to mobilise interest in ordinary people while the Need+Action combination was the way to target and engage the decision makers. In both cases Loss was de-emphasised (though still part of the context). While the sense of this is clear, the real world is more complicated. For one thing many ‘ordinary public’ also happen to be decision makers – so these people would still have to resolve the two sets of messages. More significantly while direct messaging to a broad public might major on Love+Action the reality was that they too would also be increasingly exposed to the Need+Action messaging that would trickle out of policy focused campaigns as they emerged in both public sector policy and in private sector business analysis.

This dual messaging may not be a problem, people have to resolve nuances in messaging all the time and Love and Need in this case are not irreconcilable. Nonetheless I have been excited by a new piece of research which seems to point to how a ‘reframing’ of the call for engagement can bring the public and policy messaging closer together.

Recent research commissioned by Defra by Simon Christmas Ltd included a survey of the UK public’s prior understandings around biodiversity. The research points to four powerful pre-existing ‘stories’ which Christmas argues need to be considered when framing communications around biodiversity in order to ensure that messages resonate with people’s existing conceptions and misconceptions:

  • Nature finds a way, is a narrative about natural recovery – species go extinct – but new species emerge, natural catastrophes happen but nature recovers – however this narrative is on a long-term, eco-evolutionary time-scale which does not reflect the implications for rapid change in human society.
  • Nature can’t keep up, is an alternative narrative about the speed at which we are depleting the environment and taking too much – with the rate of human impact resulting in environmental losses, habitat depletion and extinction – it is the ‘Loss’ narrative highlighted in Futerra’s work.
  • People find a way, highlights the human ability to solve problems and brings the misconception that there is a technological fix for everything – influenced by sci-fi visions of inter-galactic ships with artificial ecologies and human engineered foods – it highlights a false sense of security in human ingenuity.
  • People can’t keep up, is an important fourth narrative about the scale of human-environment change and people needing space and place for reconnection among the turmoil of life.

4storiesChristmas has been cautious to present the evidence coming out of the study rather than suggest communication solutions, but he concludes that a successful framing of biodiversity issues might invoke stories of nature but within a human time frame. It might also tap into the wonder of nature’s capacity to grow, adapt and recover, to counter the ‘tech-fix’ story, and to highlight how nature works – not just why it matters or what it is worth. The framing would be consistent with Futerra’s work in that it would highlight the imbalance of positive and negative human impacts, while celebrating the positive. It might also draw on nature as the place where one reconnects – with nature, with others and with one-self.

In negotiating these narratives I found a particular ‘meta story’ stood out, one which focused on the human timescale, the sense of people and nature not keeping up and the role of nature as part of the positive solution for our future well being. This was a story about ‘Helping nature to help us’ an engagement framing that recognises the importance of nature as a powerful force; of both our impact and dependence on it, and a deep desire to redress the balance.

Helping nature to help us is consistent with both Gillespie’s Love+Action and Need+Action calls as it can highlight both awe in nature and intrinsic value as much as it can refer to how people benefit from nature in ways that economists can account for. Helping nature to help us might therefore bridge between broad public and policy and business messaging. It can also highlight that nature is active, adaptive, can grow and recover if we help it to do so using our ingenuity to support restoration and recovery.

Helping nature to help us could operate as a slogan, or by-line in a clear call for engagement while being sufficiently flexible for different stakeholders to adapt and hone their own particular messaging under it. It could also be transposed to promoting more positive futures such as The future will be shaped by people and nature working together.

2 responses to “Helping nature to help us

  1. That’s an excellent article Bob, it chimes with experiences of trying to sell ‘biodiversity, and the danger of making people feel overwhelmed and powerless. I think there’s power in the old ‘Think globally, act locally’ slogan in terms that there are things we can all do in our everyday lives to help – and also that it’s an rewarding thing to do, with direct benefits to people’s well-being.

  2. Hi Bob- that’s an excellent piece. I’ve sent it round all the staff here. I swear by the ‘branding biodiversity’ piece Futerra put together and we use it here a lot. I’ve also passed round your ‘helping nature to help us’ idea.

    All the best,

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