Biodiversity is a tricky beast to capture: It always seems either too small or too big to communicate. Too small, considering all the little parts that make up our environment — many of which are often invisible to us. Too big as biodiversity describes nothing less than the “variety and variability of all life on earth.”
All the while, the clock is ticking: A new UN report finds that species of all kinds are disappearing at a rate “tens to hundreds of times higher than the average over the last 10 million years.” Unlike the mass extinction events of geological history, this one is driven by just one species: humans. Much of the disappearance has to do with how we grow our food, and how much of it and which food we consume.
In less than two years, world leaders will convene in China for the UN Convention on Biological Diversity’s (CBD) Conference of Parties to agree on a new framework that will guide global action to protect nature, save species and use resources sustainably. But without broad public support and motivation to change the way we manage resources, any political framework will fall short of its ambitions.
Effectively communicating the urgency of biodiversity protection has never been more critical. Based on Rare’s experience using behavioral insights and social marketing — alongside results of a global competition that surfaced 338 solutions for sustainable agriculture and land-use practices and trainings that have empowered 200 local changemakers around the world to address the social and environmental challenges facing their communities — we have some insight into making the message stick.
1. Focus on solutions
Biodiversity means different things to different people. And while highlighting the massive rate of extinction or immediate danger for a certain species can motivate action in the short term, it is less likely to do so in the long term. The brain does not like to cope with negative feelings. Ten years ago, a study on consumer psychology showed how pride is a much more powerful motivator than shame. In 2018, research led by Princeton University concluded that the same is true for environmental decisions. Inspiring pride for the species and characteristics that make our ecosystems unique is a powerful communication tool. But how can we do that on a global scale, when the value we hold for our nature and animals differs from place to place? Trick №2 certainly helps with this conundrum…
2. Be guided by local wisdom
The beauty of taking a bottom-up approach to campaigning is that you never stop learning. Community-led research and focus-group testing are powerful tools to rectify false assumptions or biases about the situation on the ground. When Rare partnered with the Wildlife Conservation Society to protect tigers and their prey in Laos, this was the last known population of Indochinese tigers east of the Mekong river. Before researching and testing community attitudes, norms, and values, each international partner thought that a campaign around the charismatic tiger would motivate people to refrain from placing traps. But as it turned out, people did not care much about the tigers — because, in the best-case scenario, they would never encounter them. A species that community members cared deeply about, however, was the red muntjac, a deer. While less charismatic to outsiders, it was beloved by community members and became the reserve’s star mascot, helping enforce a trap ban that ultimately benefited the tigers too.
3. Celebrate the champions
Research shows that a tipping point for broad adoption is reached once 20–30% of a group takes on a new practice. That’s why we work with changemakers already implementing successful solutions and trusted in their communities. In Kenya, that includes David Mwangi and his Manor House Agricultural Center. On their lush and green model farm, Manor House pioneered agricultural practices that led to an approximately four-fold increase in production while using fewer external inputs. Following a campaign designed with David and Manor House, demand for training by smallholder farmers tripled — making Manor House independent from donor funding for the first time in five years.
4. Don’t do all the talking
Encouraging wiser use of our natural resources is like networking at a cocktail party: don’t do all the talking yourself. A journal article published earlier this year shows that among all the factors influencing take-up of new behaviors, interpersonal communication had the strongest impact. So instead of driving the conversation, biodiversity communicators should inspire discussion among their target audience. This can include speaking your audiences’ language, literally: In Mexico’s Chiapas region, our partner Noe from CISERP A.C. is busy producing his first comic. The story uses humor and creativity to explain the basics of preserving seed diversity. It is also one of the few publications produced primarily in Tzotzil, a local language spoken by 400.000 people. In Bolivia, a respected local artist helped design a mural that inspired people to eat more indigenous crops instead of imported fast foods.
5. So tell me what you want, what you really, really want
The number of environmental problems we face today — overfishing, deforestation, plastic waste, climate change — is overwhelming. But guess what? The same can be true when people are confronted with too many solutions. What psychologists and marketers call ‘decision fatigue’ and ‘choice overload’ can kick in. To overcome this hurdle, we need to identify the most practical solution for implementation while leaving the most significant impacts — ideally including crosscutting and ripple effects. Such solutions could include practice-based approaches like promoting zero tillage farming and climate-resilient crops in landslide-prone areas in Nepal to strategic policy shifts such as introducing legislation that incentivizes sustainable resource use in coastal communities. To find out what works where and how and with whom: consult Tricks 1 through 4.
The examples referenced above are drawn from Rare’s Center for Behavior & The Environment and the global Farming for Biodiversity initiative. Farming for Biodiversity is part of the International Climate Initiative(IKI) and run together with IFOAM — Organics International and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). The Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (BMU) supports this initiative on the basis of a decision adopted by the German Bundestag.
Click here to learn more about Rare’s Farming for Biodiversity initiative.