Climate change is the biggest threat to existence we’ve ever faced – the added irony being that we’ve brought it upon ourselves, yet don’t seem to care enough do anything about it. This is the eternal headache for environmentalists, and while the planet is speeding towards severe climatic change, there is still discussion between scientists about how bleak a scenario we should present. Some believe that a level-headed approach that preserves absolute academic integrity is the way forward, laying out data as if facts alone will be enough to inspire change. Others’ hearts pound and guts twist every time the weather is a bit unusual, and feel that we just need to scare people into action. These approaches don’t work. We’re still failing to connect with the people we hope – and need – to.
In order to align yourself with an audience and inspire change, you have to relate to, and with, their values. However, many of the core values held by environmentalists are intrinsically at odds with many of those held by the rest of the world. Environmentalists push for a scaling-back of industry, pollution and consumption, advocating and enacting sacrifices at individual and societal levels for the sake of the bigger picture, while the global economy is driven for a quick buck. This can be deeply annoying – at times even offensive – to those on both sides. How can we bridge such divides to bring about change?
So often, science communicators fail to inspire change because we fail to see that a transfer of knowledge doesn’t necessarily lead to a transfer of values – but if we want people to feel passionately about the planet, the most important and profound impact will come from precisely this transfer. The conveyance of knowledge – and I know this grates with some scientists – is actually far less important.
Occasionally, conservation scientists will try to ‘value’ nature – that is, to contextualise the environment through qualities we already feel are important. Biodiversity Hotspots are catalogues of severely threatened ecological zones that have a high density of biodiversity. Biodiversity Hotspots are a ‘realistic’ approach to spending the limited pot of money made available for conservation: a way of delivering the most ‘bang for buck’ to investors. It’s a neat way of working with the system – but it’s not changing it for the better.
The criteria that designates Biodiversity Hotspots are ‘number of species’ and ‘percentage [of] habitat lost’. Both must score highly for a region to be classed as a ‘Hotspot’. This appeals to an inherent cultural phenomenon: scarcity drives demand. There is a clear reward to saving the last polar bear, or the last fragment of rainforest, or the most endemic-rich mountain range. By doing so, we can feel we’ve achieved something extraordinary. I get that.
We crave scarcity. Collectively, we go daft for limited-editions, fixed-term bargains and one-of-a-kinds. We prize and reward the fastest, strongest, smallest, etc. We are suckers for superlatives. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this: when I am telling an audience a story of climate change, superlatives are the difference between a story and a great story. They’re the difference between some polar bears and the last polar bears. The object may not change, but how we feel about it does.
When the appeal of superlatives drive conservation, however, something underpinning the approach worries me. No matter how remarkable an ecosystem is, no matter how biodiverse and pristine, or how useful a service it provides humanity – no Biodiversity Hotspot got its title before 70 % of the original habitat had been lost. Regions must be effectively doomed to qualify.
Could we reward scarcity so much that we actually wait for – or even cause – a situation to get worse before we are moved to make it better? Does a species have to be at the edge of extinction before we take notice? And if that’s how our audience currently engages with climate change, should we resign ourselves to it, pursue extreme climate scenarios for the sake of dramatic action?
Our systems of belief and our experience of the world is shaped by the words we use to define it. I hate the term ‘Biodiversity Hotspot’ because it’s unemotive and over-complicated. Defining it is an exercise in cliché, but if you’re going to talk about it to an audience, as I do, you’re going to have to. Explaining biodiversity should not simply elucidate the word, but provide the frame through which we conduct our work, our thought, and ourselves. Imagine how differently we might view the world if we understood biodiversity as:
• All the different plants and animals.
• Number of species.
• Genetic variation.
• What makes life worth living.
• What makes living possible.
How might our values and our priorities change if our definition was taken from different places in that list? All of the above are true for me, and while I will adjust the definition I use depending on my audience, I will never give an academic definition of ‘biodiversity’ without an equally emotive description. I would rather refer to anything to do with climate change as ‘Saving The World’.
Some have corrected me on this point, reasoning that we can only ‘save the world as we know it’. If you tell someone that it’s only the fate of the word as we know it that is at stake, somewhere in the back of their mind will be a little voice saying: ‘Well, change isn’t all bad… It’d be nice if it was a bit warmer…’ All you’ve given them is a get-out clause.
‘Saving The World’ conveys something more personal. To some, ‘The World’ is Planet Earth, and all the stuff within it. But to many others, ‘The World’ is their world: their home, their family, their friends; the food they eat and the things they like to do. That’s what we must recognise and respect as we communicate the need to save the world. We don’t necessarily need to scare people into action, or bombard them with science. We can connect with each other, and move people to change, using language that is true to shared values.
Andy Clark is an environmental filmmaker (The Top Of The Tree). His award-winning work ‘High Water Common Ground’ presents an environmentally-holistic and community-focussed approach to flooding in the context of climate change. ‘The Carbon Farmer’ deals with peatlands and climate change, and is due to be shared with UK Parliaments later this year.
[This article was originally published in It’s Freezing In LA! Issue 1, August 1st 2018, and has been re-posted here with thanks to Martha Dillon and Alice Attlee, and to Laurie Avon, who’s work you can see more of on Instagram.]