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.

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