It's time to bring positivity back to conservation

Well before I was born, a number of movements sparked worldwide activism and created tangible change. Most were peaceful, some were more direct and some, but not all, achieved their goal. There have been amazing examples of conservation successes across the world, including the campaign against damming the Franklin River in Tasmania and the banning of commercial whaling in the Antarctic region. Today, the more memorable examples of these campaigns are those that mobilized people by using the threat of doing nothing as motivation. Negativity and risk inspired action.

Big dams = big power bills. Does focusing on the negative consequences still motivate people? Picture: Sydney Morning Herald

Big dams = big power bills. Does focusing on the negative consequences still motivate people? Picture: Sydney Morning Herald

In a time of 24-hour news cycles and daily crises, it becomes incredibly draining to be hit with bad news after bad news. Environment and conservation stories seem to be predicated on impending doom. We hear of another species on the brink of extinction and another piece of habitat lost every day. We become desensitized, as we do to other nightly tragedies. So much so that it becomes difficult to know which calamity to devote our attention to and which to lament. As expected, helplessness follows.

How do we turn this around? First and foremost, we can learn from concurrent debates. If the climate change discourse has taught us anything, it’s that the doom and gloom angle doesn’t work. People don’t engage. We need to apply the same rationale to other realms of conservation and to reimagine discussions in a more uplifting light. George Monbiot did this brilliantly in his book Feral, heralding a new movement of ‘positive environmentalism’.

Tim Flannery and George Monbiot's latest books are recent forays into a more positive, hopeful form of environmentalism. 

Tim Flannery and George Monbiot's latest books are recent forays into a more positive, hopeful form of environmentalism. 

So, in this hypothetical shift towards a more positive outlook, what needs to happen? How do we break the populous free from environmental numbness? Turns out that, in part at least, it’s down to the language we use and the types of stories we choose to tell.

Reading and writing about nature is one of my favourite pastimes. There’s something therapeutic about describing and imagining wild places: a pleasure that goes unmatched. But it’s so hard to remain interested in a succession of stories at the bleak end of the spectrum. Much of the bleakness comes from the way that authors frame their stories: from structure and theme to word choice. It becomes an absolute chore to write – and to read – words like extinction, decline and loss over and over again.

So, why not change the way we talk about conservation? Wonder, awe, beauty, flourish and wild; these words conjure vivid, upbeat images and, as a result, make us inclined to conserve rather than despair. 

Why dwell on a degraded landscape when we can project a vision for it’s future?

Bringing hope and optimism to conservation isn’t a new idea. In 2010, James Sheppard and Ronald Swaisgood published a piece in the journal Bioscience lamenting that conservation biology is increasingly ‘a field of despair’. They contended that scientists needed to practice how to be hopeful, so hope could infiltrate through society as a whole. It’s an important notion but, according to Google Scholar, their paper has been cited a mere 24 times. A review published this year in Integrative Zoology by Ruscena Weiderholt highlights the same problem; negativity doesn’t inspire anymore. Consequently, our messages aren’t getting through. 

Dorothea Schaffner and colleagues wrote in the Journal of Consumer Marketing this year that negative framing of biodiversity research increases awareness but fails to mobilize action. These days, increasing awareness is only half the job. When the team presented the same research portrayed in a positive light, people were not just made aware but were also inspired to act. It seems a simple tweak of the message really can make a big difference. 

Focusing on the positives can help inspire action, while dwelling on negatives only breeds helplessness. Photo: Conservation Volunteers Australia. 

Focusing on the positives can help inspire action, while dwelling on negatives only breeds helplessness. Photo: Conservation Volunteers Australia. 

But why stop at just tweaking the message? We can also change people’s experience. As a conservation biologist, there are few greater feelings than watching a volunteer’s eyes widen and face light up in ecstasy as they are exposed to a new, thrilling part of nature. Whether it’s a delicate wildflower or the howling of a dingo, the effect is the same – pure wonder and anticipation of what might be waiting around the corner.

It’s this kind of anticipation that the success of the rewilding movement is rooted in; that heightened pulse, those hairs standing up on the back of your neck. People dedicate their lives to chasing these feelings. Experiences not only help find these feelings, but also make them easier to access. As a result, we’re compelled to act, to restore and to conserve. Just so we can get that next hit of feeling wild. 

With the constant barrage of sixth extinction and climate stories, our conservation wins risk getting lost in the mire. We need to share our success stories. In the past few months, Australia has focused on the ‘tsunami of violence and death’ that are feral cats (we can thank Australian Environment Minister Greg Hunt for that wonderful turn of phrase). In that time, species like the western quoll and eastern barred bandicoot have been reintroduced to their former homes, yet these triumphs seem to have been lost in the white noise of endless news.

The western quoll returned to its former home in the Flinders Ranges recently. Photo: Australian Wildlife Conservancy

The western quoll returned to its former home in the Flinders Ranges recently. Photo: Australian Wildlife Conservancy

In the social media age, one of the best ways to work out which stories most engage people is to track how often posts are shared. Jonah Berger and Katherine Milkman did just this in 2012, suggesting in the Journal of Marketing Research that positive stories go viral more often than those laden with doom and despair. Applying this to conservation naturally means stories of restoration, reintroductions and discovery will engage audiences far better than tales of collapse.

Can this translate into monetary donations? Probably. For the most part, people are careful where they spend their money. Thus, why donate to something that seems doomed anyway? People are more likely to invest in something that is more certain to be successful, creating value for money. The same can apply for conservation projects. Given the choice, I’d be more inclined to donate to the project surrounded in positivity and optimism, rather than another in despair.

Conservation wins get people interested. The wins show it is still possible for humans to work with nature. Sharing and celebrating these good news stories can be powerful tools for inspiring action. They offer a road map, a light at the end of the tunnel, for those feeling overwhelmed by the scale of environmental problems.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t lose sight of the problem at hand. Or stop communicating it. Scientists are trained to be skeptical – a trait that cannot be, and should not be lost. Maintaining a healthy realism and sticking to evidence is fundamental. Thus, it’s imperative to acknowledge that a myriad of species and ecosystems are in dire trouble but this needn’t translate into pessimism. But that's only half the job. There are enough people and resources to achieve conservation goals, it’s ‘just’ a matter of mobilising them.

Conservation biologists have a responsibility to communicate facts that increase the awareness of environmental problems. But that isn’t enough. As advocates for conservation it is our responsibility to deliver messages that inspire action. It’s time to return positivity and hope to conservation. 

This article originally appeared in Issue 12 of Biosphere Magazine and is published here with permission. 

Billy Geary
Billy is the Science & Conservation Editor at Wild Melbourne. He is a wildlife ecologist interested in predator-prey interactions and invasive species management.

You can find him on Twitter: @billy_geary

Urban Wildlife and Responsible Cat Ownership

If I were a feral cat, I would steadily be getting more and more concerned about my wellbeing. In order to halt the decimation of our native wildlife, the Federal Government has recently released the Threatened Species Strategy. Part of this strategy is a pledge to humanely remove two million free-living feral cats from wild areas across the nation.

For many, this is a long-awaited development in our fight against extinction. Cats were introduced to Australia with the arrival of European settlement. Since their introduction, Australia has lost 29 native mammal species, with feral cats implicated as one of the main causes for the extinction of 20 of them. Furthermore, the Action Plan for Australian Mammals, released in June 2014, concluded that 55 species of native wildlife are threatened and require urgent conservation action.

If you’re a cat owner like me, you may be thinking: “So what? My cat isn’t feral, she hardly EVER brings anything home, and she is far too lovely to be categorised as a ferocious predator!” But you would be wrong (I’m sorry, I know it hurts to hear it).

Domestic cats ( Felis catus ) are a major threat to Australian mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians. Photo: Billy Geary

Domestic cats (Felis catus) are a major threat to Australian mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians. Photo: Billy Geary

While research on the impact of domestic cats on native wildlife is scarce compared to that of feral cats, it suggests that domestic and stray cats do negatively impact many of our native species. For example, domestic cats have been implicated in the decline of the Superb Lyrebird in Sherbrooke Forest, and in the decline of the Eastern Barred Bandicoot in south-western Victoria. In the case of the bandicoot, cats were responsible for at least 42 percent of deaths in juveniles. Other studies have found that 50 to 80 percent of cats partake in hunting activities, but that the cats only brought between one third and one half of their prey items home.

I’ll admit it, I don’t like to think of my moggy as a parrot-eating, spinebill-chasing huntress, but our urban wildlife is too important to ignore this problem any longer.

In recent years, many councils have moved to reduce the impact of pet cats on native wildlife in their municipalities by imposing cat curfews. In the City of Wyndham in Melbourne’s north-west, cats must remain on their owner’s properties between the hours of 10pm and 6am, and between 8pm and 6am in the City of Whitehorse in Melbourne's east. The Yarra Ranges Council has gone a step further, requiring that cats must stay on their owner’s property at all times.

It's hard to believe that my little fluff-ball is contributing to the loss of our urban wildlife, but it is something that I must accept responsibility for. Photo: Emma Walsh 

It's hard to believe that my little fluff-ball is contributing to the loss of our urban wildlife, but it is something that I must accept responsibility for. Photo: Emma Walsh 

So what can you do to limit your feline friend’s impact on our native birds, mammals, reptiles and frogs? For starters, you can have your moggy desexed. This won't stop your cat from hunting, but it will eliminate any chance of it contributing to the proliferation of feral and stray cat populations. This will also help to reduce the number of dumped and unwanted cats that overrun animal shelters every year. If you are looking for a more direct approach, there are things like brightly coloured cat bibs which bring the cat to the prey’s attention, or other apron-like collar attachments which interfere with paw-eye coordination to reduce the wearer’s chance of a successful pounce. Finally, you can keep your cat indoors as much as possible. This is the most effective way of protecting our fauna, and also limits your cat’s chances of being injured in a road accident or catfight.

It’s difficult to acknowledge that your furry friend may be feasting on native animals behind your back, but acceptance is the first step to solving the problem. By making a few calculated commitments towards limiting your felines take-away habits, you can help to halt the decline of our urban wildlife. 

George Monbiot: The enchantment of rewilding

In the opening few chapters of British journalist George Monbiot’s Feral, a somewhat foreign, yet completely sensible view of the state of humanity is offered – we are ecologically bored. We’re disconnected from nature, he argues, and it’s hurting both us and our environment. What we need is a new, positive form of environmentalism.

Bring back the wonder of existence.

As such, Feral is a foray into, what Monbiot believes, is the best way to reconnect the populous with nature. That solution is both amazingly simple and daring – bring nature to us. Allow nature to wrench back control from humanity to progress and change on its own in a self-regulating fashion. By giving the power of decision to nature, we ensure that nature gets to choose the right balance, rather than humans artificially producing what we think is ‘right.’

Feral also acts as somewhat of a memoir for Monbiot, detailing the times at which he has felt closest to our biosphere. In his search for the exhilaration not felt since he explored rainforest when younger, Monbiot brings us on his journey to explore the British coast and the remnant Welsh forests. It’s on this journey that Monbiot details his growing realisation that modern day environments need reinvigorating, with the aim of restoring them to their former glory.

Enter rewilding...  

Rewilding, according to Monbiot, can have a number of definitions. First, it is the restoration of environments to their naturally occurring state. Secondly, it is returning the thrill of nature to human existence – something that is gravely missing in the technological age. Most importantly rewilding puts the natural world into focus on a number of levels.

As Monbiot stated in his recent Ted Talk, “Rewilding offers us hope. In motivating people to love and defend the natural world, an ounce of hope is worth a tonne of despair.” This point rings true on a number of levels, as a lack of knowledge or education is currently seen as the cause of human apathy towards the environment.

George Monbiot helps us visualise the concept of rewilding, describing the amazing things our world is capable of doing (if we let it.) (Video: TED)

Furthermore, there is genuine empirical evidence that rewilding is already occurring across much of mainland Europe. Wolves are returning to places in which they’ve not been seen for decades, and it’s having amazing affects on community assemblages, both in Europe and America. It’s here that the greatest scope for ecosystem restoration lies, with the reintroduction of top predators. The wide-ranging effects of large carnivores are well documented in a number of systems. As such, the case for returning wolves and lynx to their former ranges has strong scientific backing.

While Monbiot’s idealised vision of Wales teeming with everything from wolves to lynx and bison is ambitious, there’s a part of the brain that longs for it. By flirting with the idea of having nature on your doorstep (something that Monbiot attempted in his move to Wales), the reader is already imagining exactly that. It is a testament to just how well Feral is written.

Feral is a success not just because of its combination of well-delivered facts and personal experiences, but also in the way it ignites desire in the reader to reconnect with nature and become wild. In only a few hundred pages, Monbiot gives the reader a glimmer of what the term ‘wild’ really means, both from an anthropogenic and an ecological viewpoint.

Yes, Feral does think big in terms of its message. However, the world needs thinking such as this right now. Hope for the preservation of nature needs to be instilled, and the public need to be engaged with nature on a more personal level. Importantly, Feral does both incredibly well.

This positive outlook that Monbiot has taken is perhaps best surmised with one line that offers both hope and wonder: that just maybe "our Silent Spring could be replaced by a raucous summer."