Behavioral and Cognitive Approaches to Biodiversity Conservation
Photo by: Lauren Anderson
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Declining biodiversity is still not seen as a threat to our survival by non-conservationists, including the general public.

For the post-2020 biodiversity framework, we need to social proof the strategic plan and targets.

There are indications that the Aichi Biodiversity Targets will not be achieved in their entirety, therefore conservation could benefit from cognitive and behavioral approaches now more than ever before.

It was quite intriguing to read an article that explains how a sign that sought to promote awareness in conservation, had in fact worked against conservation. A sign was put up in a peatland forest in Arizona, US, to deter people from stealing from the forest. It read as follows: “Many past visitors have removed petrified wood from this park, destroying the natural state of the petrified forest.” Months later, when a review was done on the impact of this sign and pilferage from the forest, researchers were astonished to find that stealing had tripled.

A behavioral science perspective on how people perceived the sign suggests that people must have thought that “since others have done it, it is alright to continue doing so.” This is a startling finding for a conservation expert who never thought of this angle in conservation.

Let me give you another example. A recent World Wildlife Fund (WWF) report cites a 60 percent loss of biodiversity globally since 1970 in spite of billions of dollars spent on conservation and dozens of global political commitments. For the common man on the street, the message is simple: we have lost 60 percent of biodiversity but I am not feeling any immediate impacts. My needs are still met, I am wealthier, consume better and invest in issues of my choice. There is no great famine, no large death toll, no economic downturn that I can see in front of my eyes.

I know this is a provocative statement to make but this is more or less what is happening in our conversations about conservation. In a book titled, ‘The Death of Environmentalism,’ the author states that the word “warming” in “global warming” “feels good” for some people. Similarly, in conservation, declining biodiversity is still not seen as a threat to our survival by non-conservationists, including the general public.

My recent research into cognitive and behavioral thinking led to me to look for uncommon answers to the way we are communicating about conservation and its importance. A few thousand delegates who convene once every two years to have heated discussions on why we are losing in our actions to protect biodiversity and what we can do to improve the situation has not helped us in the recent decades.

Looking at cognitive science, I came across an interesting set of experiences from the advertising industry on how the industry captures people’s attention and imagination to push their agenda. Two specific examples are of relevance to how we advance the biodiversity agenda using cognition: social proofing; and communicating impacts of our actions.

Social Proofing Our Message

In an article published in the Wall Street Journal on turning consumers green, the author notes that there was more response to the sign that said neighbors are actively using the options to go green than to those that mention how much money one can save, how responsible one could be towards the environment or to what extent this is a moral obligation.

Reported progress on biodiversity conservation and climate change suggests that few are aware of this. Having reviewed all the national reports to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) submitted by States until 2018, it is clear that almost all of them address what governments are doing for conservation but there is very little information on what others, including civil society, business community, UN agencies and academic institutions, are contributing. This is a major disconnect, which disincentivizes people from partnering in conservation. Few environment ministries’ web portals, united in the network of national Clearing-House Mechanisms, highlight successes of these stakeholders.

For the post-2020 biodiversity framework, we need to social proof the strategic plan and targets. Merely reporting that these are developed in a participatory manner through a few workshops and consultations will not do.

Communicating Impacts of Our Actions

We all know that in spite of all our efforts the environment is getting from bad to worse. All the investments are yet to give us impactful results, and we are struggling to make the “big breakthrough.” In this context, it is important to be cautious with our messages about challenges and failures.

It is alright to admit to failures, but environmental managers need to ensure that the message is communicated in a manner that clarifies the reasons for failure better. Additionally, the more the common man feels the guilt for their own actions, the better the chances for behavioral change. This, however, would require workable solutions.

Take the example of a 1962 advertisement by David & Goliath for the car rental company Avis that was far behind Hertz in brand popularity. It stated: “When you’re only number two you try harder. Or Else.” The advertisement increased Avis’s annual profit by US$1.2 million in a decade, and the company ran it for 50 years.

Behavioral and Cognitive Approaches in the Post-2020 Framework and 2030 Agenda

The 2010 Biodiversity Target was met only partially, and there are indications that the Aichi Biodiversity Targets will not be achieved in their entirety. At the 15th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP 15) to the CBD to be held in Beijing, China, governments will face the challenging task of upholding people’s confidence in multilateral approaches to and national actions on saving biodiversity.

Conservation could benefit from cognitive and behavioral approaches now more than ever before. These approaches could help achieve the Aichi Biodiversity Targets as well as SDG 15 (life on land) and SDG 14 (life below water). This is the main message from a side event FLEDGE organized during the CBD COP 14 in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt. The examples and approaches outlined in this article resonated with many countries who suggested actions towards behavioral change. It is our hope that countries will explore these options further as we develop the post-2020 biodiversity framework.

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This article was written by Balakrishna Pisupati, Chairperson, FLEDGE. The author also served as Head of UNEP Biodiversity Unit and Chairman of the National Biodiversity Authority with the Government of India.


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