The Superlative Allure

Here’s a little film about Madagascar. Madagascar is the world’s oldest island. There are more endemics – species that live in here and only here – in Madagascar than anywhere else on Earth, and the diversity not just of the life here, but of the environments on this 1000-mile island is unrivalled; Lush Rainforests, Spiny Southern Forests, and Dry Deciduous Northern Forests. Though with as little as 2% of original forest remaining, nowhere is as remarkable yet so near to complete, irreplaceable destruction.

Madagascar is classified by the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) as a Biodiversity Hotspot – meaning that it’s within the top 35 (it’s quite near the top) of the most biodiverse-yet-threatened places on Earth. In short – the one’s we really want to hang on to.

So, Should We Save It?

That’s a question that the IUCN, WWF, Opwall, Saving Species and many other Conservation NGO’s have to ask every single day; and it’s not that easy to answer. Resources are limited, so if we’ve only got so much protection to go around, but a planet’s-worth of things that need protection, we end up having to be quite strict. The IUCN designed their Red List & the Biodiversity Hotspots idea to help us get the maximum return for our investments – the places where we can save the most stuff, that’s most in need of saving & most likely to disappear if we don’t. Their exact criteria is “Must contain more than 1500 species of Vascular Plants” (cos they’re easy to count & quantify) and “Must have lost more than 70% of it’s original habitat”.


I’ve stated that “Resources are limited”. In 2012 , Donal McCarthy et al calculated that we’ll need to spend $76 BILLION, every year for the next 10 years to save all the species & habitat that needs saving. Does that sound like quite a lot?

Turns out that’s actually <20% of what we annually spend on soft drinks…

In 2013, the US Military fiscal budget was $610 BILLION –  that’s 8 of the 10 years of saving the world covered in one…

and last year the US’s GDP was $17.4 TRILLION, while the UK’s was just $2.5 TRILLION.

So… the money is out there…

The Superlative Allure

So, being the story-loving species that we are, we’re actually selecting stuff that is the most worthy of remark. This is beyond the simple charisma of the cuddly-&-endangered Giant Panda, we’re attracted to extremes. In the same way that limited edition chocolates sell-out, lost-sessions albums are fought over by fans, we drool over fine wines & rare spirits and even go to the extent of believing that this is an exclusive sale at DFS; we select for the last of something, the most threatened, the biggest, the smallest, the fastest, the fattest, the most genetically isolated, the rarest. It’s fair enough; we like to feel special.

This is a brilliant book.

Randy Olson says in his book ‘Connection‘ that, in relation to story-telling “[Superlatives are] the difference between “one of” the best things in storytelling and “the” best thing in storytelling.” It’s why The Last Polar Bears are more encapsulating than Some Polar Bears.

Really Superlatives are just adjectives, but they’re the best adjectives. It’s whatever makes a Ming Vase more than just a vase; what makes M&S food more than just food.

The Price of Life?

So this leads me to a wondering; if we prize rarity over commonality… if only the most threatened species get funding… could we be making endangerment an attractive position in which to place species? We can argue for ‘Umbrella‘ and ‘Indicator‘ Species (Take Tigers or Tapirs – rare, kinda easy to monitor but massively representative of everything else living in their ecosystem), but at worst this could mean that we drive species to extinction just to make them more interesting & fund-able; or similarly we could waste money protecting the rare or cuddly purely for rareness’ or cuddliness’ sake (*cough* Pandas *cough*).

Economy Ecology

There’s 2 things we can do to make our pursuit of Conservation & World-Saving more viable, efficient & effective.

1. Look for the hidden benefits of things – also known as ‘Ecosystem Services‘. Best example – BEES! It’s quite true that we cannot live without them (at least not without invoking huge struggling and faff), and they underpin & support basically everything from the plants that they pollinate to the thing-that-eats-the-thing-that-eats-the-thing-that-eats-the plants that they pollinate. That’s the wonderful thing about Ecology – it all functions as a whole, and we need most of what the world naturally does to survive.

In a more casual sense, I’m saying ‘Stop & Smell The Roses‘.

2. Give Alluring Superlatives

Do you know how many words we have in the English language? 750,000. Of those, 3,000 are to describe emotion – of which your average westerner will habitually use 12. Tony Robbins is a vibrant advocate of the power of words, stating that if you simply transform your vocabulary you can transform your life – & he’s right. The way that we use words has a direct effect on how we experience the world around us. So try it; describe the world as if it’s a place of wonder, as if you could be excited by a single bee, of millions.

But when it comes to describing a world most-full of wonder, there really is only one expert;


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