Getting Serious: taking Nature Conservation to Stage Three


As an avid consumer of news, articles and literature on the state of nature and natural resources and present trends, I have developed a discerning eye for the narrative that surrounds biodiversity conservation.  The volume of this kind of writing is increasing and always surges following a major report, such as the recent IPBES or Living Planet reports replete with their alarming news.

Almost all such writings – excluding personal and lyrical reflections on nature – begin by painting a bleak picture of the present predicament – we are in the Sixth Great (Holocene) Extinction; populations of insect pollinators and the birds that feed on them have crashed, endangering the future of agriculture and food production; oceans are clogged with plastic; coral reefs are dying; the rhino has had it and, most likely, the elephant too.  And nature programmes on television seek to trigger guilt by featuring the heartstring-plucking beauty of what we are losing.

Stage 1: Fear as motivator

Far too high a proportion of these writings leave it at that – at what I call stage one – and with the untargeted admonition that: “we must act!”, as if fear reliably drives action rather than denial.  As if we all know the effective pathways to reversing present trends and need only to find the time in our busy schedule of daily commitments to walk down them.  In my view, while conceding that a backdrop of urgency is necessary to drive action, scare tactics have demonstrated their abject failure to mobilise at the necessary scale except at the local level.  Certainly, at a political level, public officials worldwide are concluding they can safely ignore the lament of the small clique that cares about nature.

Stage 2: Attention to drivers of cataclysm

More responsible writing goes on to “stage two” – and reflects on what is driving the cataclysm.  They rightly identify the failed policies, the perverse incentives, the absence of political will, the weak mechanisms to ensure compliance with agreed laws, regulations and public commitments, the short shrift given to solemnly-adopted goals and many more.  The diagnosis tends to be sound: we cannot address biodiversity loss and ecosystem impoverishment unless we understand the forces driving this loss and impoverishment, gradually aligning the behaviour that conserves nature with the behaviour that rewards entrepreneurs, investors and private individuals.  Again, if we knew how to do that, we would not be where we are today.

Arguments that remain at stages one and two represent the overwhelming majority of writing and public messaging around nature and conservation.  They are the mirror of today’s bleak narrative on nature and yet history has proved them – at least on their own – to be largely ineffective in driving real change.  The narrative is as ineffective as the strategic frameworks, roadmaps and action plans that obsess the conservation community.  It is as ineffective as target-setting.  Efforts to establish nature and natural resources at the heart of development have failed because present patterns of economic development, production and consumption allow no place for these.

Transforming to Stage 3: Putting nature at the centre

A new initiative – Better Nature – seeks to take us to stage three.  Unlike most global conservation efforts, whether undertaken within the intergovernmental framework of the Convention on Biological Diversity or by the “conservation majors”, it is focused on securing a central spot for nature in the broader processes underway to rethink our approach to human development and to seek a redesign of economic, political, social and environmental status quos that align policy and practice in these fields with the broader objectives of sustainable development.

The aim of Better Nature is to generate a large-scale mobilisation to transform these systems and, in so doing enable, rather than continue to restrain, efforts to reverse biodiversity loss and the impoverishment of ecosystems. This is based on the observation that the level of concern over this issue is simply not wide-spread enough to convince politicians that the low-risk path consists in supporting genuine commitment to conservation targets.  The famous lack of political will, everywhere manifest, is simply the result of a cool-headed calculation that addressing the issue head-on will not markedly improve re-election prospects.

Four Parallel Fronts

What, then, will permit and fuel this mobilisation?  Better Nature will work on four parallel fronts.  The first is to craft new narratives.  The dominant Narrative has failed to scare people into action; it simply results in raising anxiety, in the best cases galvanising more business as usual conservation action, and, in the worst cases, triggering denial.  In reality there are almost endless actions that can be taken at the personal, community or peer-group level that could trigger a cascade of conservation action.  These narratives must be exciting, based on what we all can do, now and within existing resources, to turn the trends around.

Second, we need to focus on bringing into the movement people not presently connected to conservation – from the fields of technology, finance, urban planning, transport, energy, manufacturing, tourism, services, and many more – people who care about nature but have never found a way to engage.

Third, we need to engage “keystone actors”, people and organisations with a disproportionate effect on the structure and function of the system in which they operate. Keystone actors have high credibility from the world of entertainment, social media, business, politics, literature, etc.  Whether individuals, groups of individuals or organisations they are opinion formers who can mobilise a following and create the networks and stakeholder groups who are keen to play a role in turning the planet around.  We must appeal to and mobilise youth in all parts of the world.

Finally, we must rapidly identify a wide range of options – promising solutions which, if applied, could begin turning the ship around and establishing nature and natural resources at the heart of the new economic and social status quo.  Better Nature will begin with a strong focus on three key fields – technology, finance, and legal action.  We are convinced that each of these areas carries ideas and solutions ready to be taken to scale and, in so doing, to create a “momentum of success”.

Better Nature proposes to put in place the missing piece in today’s approach to the challenge of nature and natural resources depletion.  It aims to introduce stage three, harnessing all the science and all the concern at present trends to turn the drivers of biodiversity loss into engines pulling us to a planet we will be proud to hand over to future generations.

Mark Halle is Co-Director of Better Nature and Senior Fellow, International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD).

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1 thought on “Getting Serious: taking Nature Conservation to Stage Three”

  1. hi mark, sounds like a great approach – would love to hear more and to explore how i can help. i run we mean business, a coalition of ngos working with business to accelerate action on climate change and am exploring how we might deploy similar approach which has transformed role of business within climate policy-making to the challenge of cbd in beijing. my email is hope to connect soon

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