Could Save-the-Environment Messages Use a Little Selfishness?

Candice Gaukel Andrews August 8, 2012 9

Someday, you might be thankful that rich, biodiverse communities exist in places remote from you. ©Eric Rock

As someone who loves wild, natural places, you’ve heard plenty of dire environmental alerts and communications. There are more tigers in people’s backyards than there are tigers in the wild. Rhinos are being poached to the point of extinction. The last Galapagos giant tortoise from Pinta Island has passed away. Plant species are disappearing at an alarming rate. It’s enough to make you feel that there’s nothing you can do to stop this runaway train of biodiversity loss.

It’s no wonder you feel that way. Images and stories about polar bears being unable to hunt on disintegrating ice floes and big wads of plastic in the ocean that kill marine mammals and fish by the tens of thousands inspire hopelessness. Whether you’re a preservationist or a conservationist, it’s enough to make you ask why you should invest any time or money in saving plant and animal species whose demise is imminent.

Those who subscribe to the tenets of neuro-conservation believe what is needed is a radical change in our environmental messaging—especially in these economic hard times when monies and donated funds are scarce. Instead of showing the plight of other species, we should communicate how a loss of biodiversity will directly affect us—or so the theory goes.

In other words, it’s time to put a little selfishness in our environmental calls to action.

Photos of polar bears stranded on disintegrating ice can sometimes inspire hopelessness regarding conservation efforts. ©Eric Rock

But how does this affect me?

Preserving native plant and animal species—especially on the other side of the globe—may not seem like a top priority when you’re struggling to put food on the table or you’re dealing with how to care for aging parents. But someday, you might be thankful that a rich, biodiverse world exists.

Currently, a scientific team from Rutgers University in New Jersey is exploring the link between biodiversity and human disease. Using various plots of land, they are comparing the number of plant species, bird species and the prevalence of West Nile virus within that particular spot’s mosquito populations. Previous studies have shown that areas with high bird diversity tend to have less West Nile virus—which mosquitoes can transmit from birds to humans—present. Since each bird species depends on specific plant species for nesting and foraging, by reducing plant diversity, you reduce bird diversity as well.

The strongest carriers of West Nile virus tend to be the kinds of perching birds (crows, grackles, house sparrows and robins) that are predominant in disturbed, fragmented and less-diverse habitats. By contrast, the types of birds that are most populous in undisturbed woodlands, wetlands and prairies tend to carry little of the virus in their bloodstreams. Across the nation, in fact, bird diversity has been a significant buffer against the spread of West Nile virus to humans.

And it’s already been shown that in tropical regions, when deforestation decreases mosquito diversity, surviving mosquito species tend to be more effective carriers of malaria.

Seventy percent of plants with anti-cancer properties are native to tropical rain forests. ©Patrick J. Endres

There are other compelling reasons to care about biodiversity loss in regions of the world that are remote from you. Most drugs in common use today derive directly or indirectly from natural sources. But less than 1 percent of the world’s plants have been analyzed for their medical potential. Meanwhile, plant extinction rates have accelerated to levels hundreds of times higher than those seen in preindustrial times.

Hope vs. despair

Neuro-conservation advocates say that in order to motivate people to care about and act upon environmental issues and the loss of biodiversity, we need to stress the positive benefits that we will gain rather than how conservation efforts will help other species. Appeals for support that show the horrific scope of a problem—often accompanied by a devastating photo—usually end up alienating the very people they mean to inspire. That phenomenon is now known as “compassion collapse,” in which people wind up feeling powerless and subsequently disengage from the issue.

I do know that I, for one, would rather hear the hopeful message that I should help save tropical rain forests because 70 percent of plants with anti-cancer properties are native to that environment than I would that mining is already threatening the plants and animals of Bryce Canyon National Park.

Do you think environmentalists need to change their media messages to stress the benefits that we’ll acquire, rather than the good we’ll do for other species?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,



  1. Dr.Jagdish Mittal August 21, 2012 at 7:03 am - Reply

    To this effect we are celebrating “Earth Festival WEEK” from 15 to 21 August 2012 in India. This is largest plantation campaign along with conservation of natural resources and preservation of Biodiversity .

  2. Mónica Alonso Ruiz August 20, 2012 at 7:10 am - Reply

    I agree with you and that’s why many people are so worried: they now feel that preserving nature is good for ourselves. Maybe media messages have to be more direct in this point.

    We have to give your message to our children: they understand better than us.

  3. Lisa Thibault August 10, 2012 at 4:25 pm - Reply

    This article has a great way of displaying information. We need more stories that basically tell people “Hey, you have a better chance of living if you don’t chop down those trees over there”. And even that little bit about the rain forest at the end is an important message to tell people. Without the rain forest, we lose the medicines to many diseases, including cancer. People should also know that researchers have only looked at maybe 1% of the plant species in the rain forests for medicinal properties. You could just imagine the cures that could be out there. Our loved ones could stop suffering and we would have better chances of living, just with a little more consideration towards the natural world. It’s stories like these that need to be the top stories in the news.

  4. Amanda James August 10, 2012 at 12:24 pm - Reply

    Thank you for sharing- this is a very important topic that we all need to be addressing so that others may one day see what we value in preserving biodiversity. If we don’t make the knowledge and drive accessible and appealing to our peers and the public, how can we ever expect to inspire and educate about the realities?

  5. John Howard Gaukel August 10, 2012 at 8:46 am - Reply

    Yes!! I do think environmentalists need to change their message to stress the benefits that we will aquire, rather than the good we will do for other species. Remember the old saying, ‘What’s In It For Me’

  6. Art Hardy August 9, 2012 at 7:59 am - Reply

    It seems as if modern times and economic realities dictate an approach that shows direct cause and effect for an individual. These days people need to feel connected and passionate about an issue before they respond.

  7. Stephen Lamoreaux August 9, 2012 at 6:13 am - Reply

    Personalizing environmental impact is critical to the success of preservation efforts. And properly educated children are the key to the future of environmental protection. Please review this children’s book – The Little Wave: An Adventure in Earthly Care – Part One at .

    Follow the journey of a little wave as it travels down a watery trail, encountering creatures along the way who explain mankind’s careless misuse of natural resources. This beautifully illustrated environmental story, written in rhyme, teaches young and old that abusing the planet does not come without consequences, but even the smallest positive change in behavior can make a big difference.

    Short Video:

  8. faisel August 9, 2012 at 2:22 am - Reply

    I believe “Nature Never Cheat.” How do we treat our trees and environment is very important. Every individual has an important role to play to make our life in this world a happier and peaceful one.

    Tomorrow is another day.Be kind enough to think about it.

    Let us love nature to live long.

    I love nature.

    Thank you

  9. Nine Quiet Lessons August 8, 2012 at 11:18 am - Reply

    It certainly couldn’t hurt. However, I have often had the suspicion that, essentially, most of the people who can be convinced already have been.

    It’s possible that, when we argue about climate change (for example) what we are really arguing about is “who’s going to pay for it?” To put it another way, you can’t convince someone when their paycheck depends on them not being convinced– and for people who make policy, that is frequently the case.

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