“Restore Our Earth” is the theme for this year’s Earth Day, which is April 22, 2021. The concept is based on the idea that as the world returns to normal following the COVID-19 pandemic, we can’t go back to business as usual. We all need to emerge from this crisis with the conviction—that has been so lacking in the past—to build back a better world, one that is focused on natural processes, green technologies and innovative thinking so that we can rejuvenate the Earth’s ecosystems.
In a break with the past, this theme rejects the notion that adaptation or mitigation are the only ways to address climate change. Every one of us needs to work on restoring the places where we live; not just because we care about the natural world, but because we require a healthy planet to safeguard human and animal health, livelihoods and happiness. A whole Earth is not an option—it is a necessity.
But is even a worldwide pandemic enough to finally convince us of how important taking care of the natural world is?
Luckily, there’s some recent good news on that front: scientific investigations are showing us how to more effectively make conservation initiatives spread … well, like a disease.
Reaching scale: connecting current conservationists to potential ones
Recently, at Imperial College London, scientists modeled how conservation initiatives are adopted across countries and regions until they reach “scale,” the level where they are more likely to be taken up and where they can have real impact on conserving or improving biodiversity.
The researchers, who published their findings in the science journal Nature Sustainability in October 2019, looked at 22 conservation initiatives from across the globe to see how they spread and how fast.
The initiatives studied included those concerning land and water, those from low- to high-income countries, and those at local, national and international levels. For example, the concepts ranged from villages introducing protections for local bays to governments designating areas as international World Heritage sites.
The scientists found that most (83 percent) of the schemes followed a slow-fast-slow model, where initial adoption is slow as a few people take it up, but then grows quickly as more early adopters connect with potential adopters. For example, one community that has established local marine protections talks about what they have done and what the benefits are to another community considering doing something similar. The researchers compared the spread of such initiatives to that of a disease, where a potential adopter catches the conservation “bug” from an existing practitioner.
Finally, the rate slows again as all potential adopters have either taken up the scheme or refused it.
So, if we want a conservation project to succeed, research suggests that a key factor is to facilitate contact between those who have already taken up the new initiative and those who might. This insight provides a model for designing conservation programs so that they reach scale, which is critical for making a lasting, tangible impact.
Targeting values: inspiring pro-environmental behavior
Another promising study on how we can motivate people to “restore our Earth” and to take action on environmental issues comes from the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois.
In an article published in the science journal Sustainability Science in March 2019, researchers showed that deeply held values, which align closely with political leanings, can predict whether someone takes action to protect the environment or not. And they suggested that people on opposite ends of the political spectrum can be spurred to take action, as long as the messaging taps into those values.
Cultural values are at the heart of a person’s worldview, so they become a subconscious filter to receive and process all incoming information. Unlike other social influences, values are fundamental. They are built throughout lifetimes and across generations. They’re also complex; we are guided by layers of values that relate to our cultures, individual principles and preferences for particular landscapes.
For example, if you’re telling someone who has a hierarchical worldview (a belief in a central authority and a tightly integrated chain of command and control, with authority gradually transferred downward) that an environmental policy will benefit all people equally, your message might not register. But if you talk about the same policy in terms of what will be achieved, then, all of a sudden, this person will hear you and likely be more open to further discussions.
In general, people with more hierarchical values are less likely to participate in environmental actions, such as recycling or volunteering for environmental causes. On the flip side, people with more egalitarian values (a favoring of equality in some form: people should get the same, or be treated the same, or be treated as equals, in some respect) tend to feel a unity with the natural world, leading them to care more about benefiting the environment.
For the purposes of this study, a team of researchers surveyed people who visited Denali National Park—where climate change is an unmistakable reality—to understand their cultural values. For example, respondents were asked to agree or disagree with statements such as, “Our society would be better off if the distribution of wealth was more equal” and “the government interferes far too much in our everyday lives.” These and multiple other statements—such as about calling a senator, recycling, voting or doing simpler things on the ground, such as being careful not to carry invasive species into a place via your shoelaces and other behaviors that individuals may feel inspired to practice after visiting a national park—helped the research team measure cultural values.
It turns out that people who visit Denali are more individualist than communitarian (valuing the self above the communal good) and more egalitarian than hierarchical. So, using environmental messages that target these values will have a greater impact in increasing pro-environmental behaviors in people who visit Denali National Park. In other places, where people may tend to hold different values, a different type of message will resonate.
Researchers have studied values and behaviors for decades, but this study is the first to successfully test the effects of multiple layers of values on behavioral change. Getting land managers to think about the values of their stakeholders can help them more effectively reach their constituency and understand their needs.
Participating in Earth Day 2021: making it one like no other
More than 1 billion people in 192 countries now participate in Earth Day activities each year, making it the largest civic observance in the world. This year, make sure that you’re one of them by going to www.earthday.org/take-action-now.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,