Following the launch of the State of Nature report, I am keen to stimulate a debate about what else we need to do to live in harmony with nature. Over the next few weeks, people from differing perspectives will propose their One Big Thing for Nature. Today, Ralph Underhill, formerly of the RSPB and now working for the Public Interest Research Centre talks about the Common Cause for Nature project.

My “one big thing” is our understanding of what motivates people to take action for nature. It’s something I feel is strongly linked to a lot of the what others have been saying in posts of this series.

Rational people are like unicorns: they don’t exist. This is something that psychologists, advertisers and politicians have known for a long time. Even the most scientific or logically minded of us (I, as someone with a science degree, count myself as one) are influenced by our values and emotions, whether we like it or not.

Advertisers have used this knowledge to sell products; they know that they can get us to buy things by appealing to our self-interest. They sell us cars as status symbols. They use fun, excitement and sex to encourage us to book holidays; and so on. If your only objective is to sell a product to a mass audience, this approach works well.

However, conservation is not a product that can be sold. The belief that we can use appeals to self-interest to create concern about the environment or support for conservation is misguided. While we might increase membership by using special offers, free gifts with memberships and celebrities to back our campaigns – ultimately are all likely to reduce the motivation of our members to act on behalf of the environment. In our attempts to “meet people where they are”, we are presuming that people are self-interested (the research shows clearly that most of us are not!), and we are likely to be actually making them more more self-interested. Repeated experiments have shown that experiences and communications that appeal to self-interest simply make people more self-interested. By using such techniques it is likely we are encouraging apathy and a passive membership.

So how can we motivate people? Getting out into nature, advocating the wonder and beauty of the natural world and creating a sense of community are all things that increase people’s motivation to act in environmentally positive ways - even in those few who give more importance to self-interested values (power and status for example). Not only does this sound like common sense, and chime with what others have signposted as their “one big thing,” it is also what the research has shown. If we want people to stand up for nature we have to remind them how inspiring and amazing nature is and give them opportunities to explore and connect with it.

The State of Nature report has given us a stark reminder of the challenge we all face. Common Cause for Nature (to be published at the end of June) provides us with a vital step in understanding how we can do something about it. Nature is inspiring and exciting and it is something to embrace and enjoy not just another product to sell… 

Do you agree with Ralph? What would be your One Big Thing for Nature?

It would be great to hear your views.

  • If we are to appeal to and engage people through their emotional attachment to nature, as well as through ‘science’, we should make sure that we are not dominated by science-led approaches to the exclusion of all else; there should be a place in this organisation's ethos for existential and moral perspectives.   We should, therefore, have the courage to advocate the rights of birds and animals alongside scientific arguments for their protection.  The horse has bolted where unicorns are concerned, but we can still use all the arguments and intuition at our disposal - scientific and moral - to secure the right of nature to a home.

  • Great blog - but perhaps I should declare an interest as a friend of Ralph.

    The point Peter makes is good one - I too think that property rights lie at the heart of much environmental conflict but why not here?. I was fascinated to uncover some analysis of Mori data that shows public environmental concern is inversely correlated to GDP.  

    On the face of it that makes sense - those in the west with relatively comfortable lifestyles simply aren't confronted with the kind of pollution, damage and de-facto theft of property rights millions of people in developing countries are subjected to every day. Its not that they didn't happen or that the scars they left continue to dominate environmental issues  - its just they don't register in the public consciousness.

    That’s why I think the insights common cause are so important – because we need to reawaken a sense of active environmental citizenship if we are ever going to redress the balance in favour of a wildlife rich future worth living. Common Cause helps us think about doing this in a way that resonates and reinforces pro-environmental values and behaviours rather than undermining them.

  • The weakness in this post (which I agree with largely as far as it goes) is its one dimensionality in that it fails to acknowledge that core elements of our extractive culture are material self interest and within it our survival is diametrically opposed to nature. It accepts and seems content with a definition of nature as a relaxing add on for recreation and escape from the humdrum when that is the core duality that is defining our culture of ecological destruction !  Our reverence for nature and our inclusion in it is at the periphery of our perceptions, nature is our recreation. That is why i regard re-wilding as an important momentum as is the restorative ecology at the Schumacher Conference (even if I need to buy a glass of green champagne to attend) ; it seems to me that land rights are at the core here for all the people so that ownership of the earth is a reality. I will be asking Satish Kumar as to why he feels the need to return to India to "march" on this issue and when it is at the core of so much of the historic divisions within the British Isles and currently that division is now being replicated across the earth as historic unwritten rights are lost globally.

  • I do agree. A well thought out and perceptive blog.