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Calling all creatives: Biodiversity needs a global advertising campaign

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“We need a global advertising campaign that excites people to start safeguarding the Earth’s biodiversity on which we all depend and which we are currently losing at an alarming rate,” says South African scientist, Emeritus Professor Richard Cowling of the African Centre for Coastal Palaeoscience at the Nelson Mandela University.  

In an article by Cowling titled Behaviours for conserving biodiversity published in January this year by the Royal Society (a fellowship of the world’s top scientists),

he strongly advocates that advertising and marketing experts now need to apply the human behaviour-changing techniques they have mastered in order to convince everyone to start looking after the Earth’s biodiversity.

It’s an interesting take from this National Research Foundation A1-rated scientist who explains that all the leading scientific evidence over several decades about biodiversity loss has not led to behavioural change. “We continue to take far more from the natural environment than we give back, with no thought for tomorrow and we therefore need another approach,” says Cowling whose article is part of a series of essays the Royal Society commissioned from global experts to yet again try to convince policy makers to prioritise biodiversity conservation.

Very simply, biodiversity is the diversity of all living organisms, species and habitats (land and sea) on our planet. Biodiversity provides oxygen, food, water, pollination, shelter; it influences climate; controls disease; sustains soil fertility … the list goes on. As humans we are part of biodiversity and entirely reliant on it but the majority of us have forgotten this; we take it for granted and exploit it as if it is an infinite resource.

Cowling explains why: “A behavioural consequence of our ancient hunter-gatherer inheritance is a tendency to discount the future: get what you can today and let tomorrow take care of itself.” He takes us back 160 000 years to the world’s first evidence of cognitive humans who lived along South Africa’s Cape south coast. “They efficiently harvested the spectacular biodiversity in the area at the time, including a wide array of edible plants, intertidal molluscs and plains game.”

Biodiversity was at the centre of our ancient lifestyles and there was more than enough to sustain us because there were only a limited number of people, which is very different to the vast human population and level of growth and consumption in the world today. 

“Since the late 1960s, economies in most parts of the world have become increasingly ‘stupid’ by failing to respond to feedback that has been screaming in our faces for decades: it is not possible to sustain perpetual economic growth in a biosphere with finite natural resources and a limited capacity to absorb waste.. The outcomes are calamitous for both nature and humans. Rising per capita consumption in the developed world and increasing populations in the developing world are stripping the Earth of its resilience at precisely the time when it needs to absorb the huge and impending ecological shocks that climate change will bring,” Cowling writes.

He explains that unless we mainstream biodiversity and focus on this natural capital to assess national prosperity, these services will continue to be neglected, undervalued, overexploited and decline further: “The prime socioeconomic indicator used worldwide to assess a nation’s prosperity is the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which measures the total value of the goods and services produced by an economy over a particular period. GDP fails to take into consideration depreciation of capital, including natural capital. Fortunately, there is a healthy debate on how to define indices of well-being that take into consideration changes in natural, social, human and built capital.” 

Conservation assessments at both the regional and global scales recommend that at least 50% of the Earth’s habitat needs to be under some form of conservation management to ensure the long-term persistence of biodiversity processes. “We will not achieve this ambitious, yet biologically defensible, target without far-reaching transformation of values, norms and behaviours of individuals and institutions,” says Cowling.

“It requires an operational model or ‘theory of change’ to mainstream biodiversity into all sectors of society. As part of this, conservation science research needs to be transdisciplinary and include all streams of knowledge, including ethics, values and social and environmental wellbeing.” He emphasises that this or any other theory of change “will flounder unless the prevalent economic order is transformed from its dependence on fossil fuels and perpetual economic growth as the primary source of well-being for humans”.

Top advertising agencies need to be part of the model, he continues: “Social marketing of the desired behaviours needs to be undertaken at scale to engender pro-nature behaviour through compelling marketing campaigns. Over many years they have convinced us to buy all sorts of things we don’t need, many of which are not good for us, and they can therefore surely use their techniques to accelerate positive social change by mainstreaming biodiversity for the common good. They should be able to do this with relative ease as we are governed by behaviours that are hard-wired in our brains since we emerged as modern humans, and biodiversity is one of them. We depended on it for everything in the past — we picked it, caught it and ate it — and we still do but it is packaged for us, which has separated us from our origins.”

Cowling says marketing campaigns need to create champions of restoration, engendering a passion for the natural world in young people by appealing to their tastes. He uses the YouTube channel Crime Pays But Botany Doesn’t where the narrator goes into the field and shares the fascination of plants. 

This is how the channel is described: “A low-brow, crass approach to plant ecology and evolution as muttered by a misanthropic Chicago Italian. Amidst mild profanity and general irreverence, we examine plant life (the base of the Earth’s food chain) and the nature of the rocks and soil they grow on … the goal of this channel is to both educate people as well as light the fire of curiosity on their ass, hopefully inspiring them to go outside and observe and question the living world around them.

“We need people to understand that protected environments are not there to exclude people, they are there to ensure our collective sustainability through healthy natural environments. Programmes such as Working for Water, which remove the alien tree infestations in our catchments and free up our priceless water resources, need to be prioritised and regarded as essential services. We need these services mainstreamed into municipal services,” adds Cowling.

“Humans have the potential to change fast as we have in the past, and that gives me hope.” 

“It will be disruptive change and there will be people who resist it — such as people who think global warming is a hoax — but overriding this is that we have cooperative behaviours embedded in our evolutionary roots as part of our survival, and if we can tweak this meme and let it explode with the right imagery and wording, we could see a lot of change,” he says.

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Heather Dugmore
Heather Dugmore is a journalist and specialist writer for higher education

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