The trouble with biodiversity

July 3, 2009 / Science, Writing / 0 Comments /

Beware the Kitchener recruitment message

When every other headline tells us the economy and planet are crumbling, when all concerns pale next to the demise of Mammon, how do we keep biodiversity, if not at the forefront of, at least somewhere in people’s minds?

Biodiversity is the poor relation of environmental concerns – a fringe concern isolated at the edge of the anthropocentric interests of the majority; the biodiversity sector a small band of altruists, whose passion marks us out as oddities amongst a nation of consumers.

“Why does biodiversity matter?”

“It just does!”

We sustain this fantasy at the cost of our cause. Altruism is dead. It’s time to admit our preference for one species above another, to recount with joy those minor and mind-altering stories of personal encounters with wildlife, to acknowledge the economic value of the natural world and join the rest of the world in unashamedly embracing our selfish gene.

Economy gone belly-up? No cash to spare? Never mind – we’ll just print more. But you cannot quantitatively ease what is not there.

Our economies have divorced from the natural resources on which they are built. Biodiversity provides the materials with which we build and

heat our homes, make and fuel our vehicles. It feeds, clothes and heals us.

It provides the fireside glow that accompanies our beer. We don’t know how biodiversity might serve us in the future, but its existence is our insurance policy. Yes, we can print money, but if the resources on which that money grows are not there, we devalue both the currency and the natural world.

Biodiversity doesn’t boom once it’s bust. Forget the banks. Get a long-term return and invest in life.

But isn’t this all a bit Big? A bit too nebulous to be immediately attractive to a population bred on conspicuous and immediate consumption?

Before we look at the methods we use to communicate biodiversity, we need to re-evaluate the message. We need to ask our audience what they want, what they need. To make biodiversity relevant to every day life; to make its loss something unconscionable; something that I can see will affect me.

We assess risk both analytically and emotionally. The weighing of evidence, the careful consideration of cost versus benefit, is ingrained in those with scientific training. But we respond slowly to analytically processed risk that may be riddled with uncertainties.

We, the enlightened, have taken the time to process our response to the challenge. We may be ready to act. Others are not. They have neither time nor inclination to digest the reams of research and analysis we produce. Something happening to another species, to a habitat further than our own back yard, doesn’t warrant a reaction.

Unless – we tap into the emotional response – stimulate the rapid reaction elicited by direct experience.

Make the message relevant. Make it fit other people’s lives, not just those of our conservation pals who already think as we do. We have to connect with our audience at a point that is of interest and relevance to them; to explore with them what their life is like with and without biodiversity. To find out what matters to them before we foist a new set of priorities onto them.

Beware the Kitchener recruitment message. Panic marketing only works in times of national crisis; when the bombs are falling actually around our homes and the price of food is actually beyond our reach. And even then, if all is lost, why bother trying? We are selling life, not destruction.

How do we communicate biodiversity to the world?

How do we communicate biodiversity to the world?

Cattle grazed on biodiverse land make tastier burgers? Prove it. Come to my high street and let me taste the difference. Wildlife exists in London? Surely not! Give me something closer to home than celebrity gossip to hold my attention while I wait for a train. Show me the wildlife at my station. Encourage me to hunt birds with a camera.

Nature is good for health and relaxation? Really? Provide space for people amongst the wildlife, as well as for wildlife amongst the people. Give me space to sit and room to breathe.

I want to survive. I want my niece to inherit a world where she doesn’t have to fight for water, food or shelter. I want, when I tell her how I explored fossil and seabird cliffs with her dad, my big brother, for her to see what we saw – to inherit our experience. I want to do the Wilbury Twist with her, surrounded by butterflies and newts, in my south London garden.

Who’s with me?

This article was first published in Big Red B – the newsletter of The London Biodiversity Partnership. Have your say. Email your thoughts on this subject to

Miranda Waugh is Director of Ask Auk, a communications and interpretation agency specialising in the heritage and biodiversity sectors. These views are her own.


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