Nature: It's about love, not loss

(Reprinted from arborvitae 42: Communicating Forest Values)

Doom and gloom messages on biodiversity aren’t working and should be replaced by positive messages that inspire action, argues CEC member Laurie Bennett.

What if we bottled up the incredible experiences people have of forests, into an inspiring positive message?

For decades we have heard about the plight of accelerating deforestation and the loss of pristine and bountiful ecosystems. In fact, it’s rare that forests and the plants and animals they support are mentioned by campaigners, policy-makers, and the media without an ‘under threat’ disclaimer.

Clearly, if this deforestation message was working to inspire the global public to take action, deforestation itself would be happening a lot less, and a lot slower. Something isn’t right.

It’s time to kill the extinction message.

Think about it from the audience’s point of view. It’s true that for ‘biocentric’ people, who value nature for its own sake, the deforestation message is strong imperative for action. But the hard truth is that, for the majority of people, biodiversity doesn’t play an active role in daily decision-making.

These people have a more utilitarian way of looking at nature—it’s about how it makes them feel rather than its intrinsic right to exist. And it’s easy to feel powerless in the face of a global deforestation crisis.

What if instead we bottled up the incredible experiences people have of forests, into an inspiring positive message?

Love of forests for most people is about awe and wonder, senses and sights, not ecosystem services and extinction stories. It is about childhood experiences, awe-inspiring nature documentaries, and our instinctive fascination with the workings of the natural world.

The ‘Love’ message trumps the ‘Loss’ message for grabbing the public’s attention. Inspiring people towards opportunity is a more powerful driver for action than scaring them away from the consequences.

But it’s not as simple as Love vs. Loss, there is also Need. With the recent publication of The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) report, we also now have the means to calculate the enormous economic value of forests. From clean air and water to fuel and medicine, we can put a tangible number against our dependence on forests. And the figure is a mind-blowing US$4 trillion per year.

The seemingly clear choice of message for communicators is to combine the Love and Need messages; inspire people and prove how valuable forests can be. But it’s not that simple. Whilst policy and decision-makers require a rational economic argument to take action, the public do not. People don’t act rationally, and there is a real danger of undermining the Love message by assigning a financial value to things people care about.

So what’s the formula for success? First, we need to lose the Loss message. For the public, the Love message can quite literally conquer all. Paired with a relevant call to action, it has the power to drive mass public change.To engage policy-makers, pair the call to action with the Need message, but teach them how to engage the public on a positive vision.

Forests are the key to solving global challenges of biodiversity loss, climate change and development. You don’t need to prove it to the world, you need to inspire them about the possibilities.

About the Author

Laurie Bennett is Founding Partner at Within People and is a member of IUCN's Commission on Education and Communication. He is the author of Branding Biodiversity, on which this article is based.

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