Ask not what nature can do for you A critique of ecosystem services as a communication strategy

Biodiversity is in crisis and there is an urgent need to raise public awareness of the issues, but is the way that nature is talked about by scientists and policymakers actually ‘disengaging’ the public?

Emerging evidence suggests, yes, that is the case.

We focused on the term ‘ecosystem services’ and believe it has been ineffective at bolstering public support for nature conservation.

The term ‘ecosystem services’ was devised in the 1970s to generate interest in biodiversity conservation, with the aim of reminding people about the vital services nature provides.

While the term has been successful at linking conservation with mainstream economics, sustainable development, and convincing academics to engage with concept – it hasn’t helped engage people.

Instead, we believe positive messages that focus on nature’s aesthetic, cultural or spiritual aspects could be much more effective.

The term ecosystem services emphasise the market-driven idea that nature is only valuable for the economic goods and services it provides to humans. These disregards any intrinsic values people may have for nature.

Research in communication, sociology, psychology, and political science shows that the way an issue is framed can directly influence the opinions an individual might have to an issue.

However, there is surprisingly little research into how people respond to biodiversity messages, but this information is valuable for understanding why policies, management approaches, and campaigns succeed or fail.

But does nature have a price? This was again debated last year when the Great Barrier Reef was valued at $56 billion.

While the goal of protecting ecosystem services is absolutely legitimate, and the terminology could be considered useful in business and science, we believe it has had limited success in increasing public interest and support for nature. The idea of using the ecosystem services terminology is only useful for nature to be better interpreted and considered by policy makers.

People are not strictly rational and are easily influenced by emotions, opinions are changed by being presented with new information (climate change is an example). This again brings into question the effectiveness of the ecosystem services approach as a communication tool.

"Children are naturally fascinated with the natural world."

Research shows that children are naturally fascinated with the natural world.

Their first words are often the names of animals, and the books and films that appeal to them are often about animals. Other studies show up to 90 per cent of the dreams of children under six years are about animals. So why do we focus on the delivery of economic services? Rather than all the many other ways in which nature inspires us?

Communication theory to guide effective messaging about nature is urgently needed. We recommend communicators should start reflecting on their objectives and intended audience and revisit the way nature is framed to ensure these important messages are received with the most impact.

We recommend communicators;

  • Identify their audience
  • Identify their communication goals (changing beliefs or attitudes, etc)
  • Identify the objectives (protecting biodiversity, set aside wilderness, etc)
  • How will success be measured?

The answers to these questions will be key to deciding how best to frame nature to engage different sectors more actively in its conservation.

Professor Sarah Bekessy

For more information: s.bekessy@rmit.edu.au; CEED Communications, Casey Fung, c.fung@uq.edu.au, +61 433 638 643.


Created with images by David Marcu - "Alone in the unspoilt wilderness" • Quangpraha - "fish fishermen fishing net" • sasint - "agriculture asia back" • Annie Spratt - "untitled image"

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