Will Conservation “Good Lists” Inspire Environmental Action?

Candice Gaukel Andrews April 28, 2015 19

Two places in Kenya made the IUCN Green List of Protected Areas: the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy and the Kenya Ol Pejeta Conservancy. The list celebrates places that are successfully conserved. ©Eric Rock

Most of us who care about the environment, wildlife and our most precious places are familiar with depressing lists, such as the federal Endangered Species List, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) List of World Heritage in Danger sites. In fact, for us, even the word listing evokes feelings of doom and despair for every new animal or location placed on such rosters.

In 2008, however, UNESCO initiated a new list, one called the “List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.” It recognizes living, cultural traditions—such as the Sicilian puppet theater, Mexico’s Day of the Dead ceremonies, the art of wit performed at festivals in Uzbekistan, the traditional wrestling practiced in Kyrgyzstan and traditional weaving of the Ecuadorian toquilla straw hat. By placing such roots practices on the list (there are 314 so far), it is hoped that they will not be lost as the world becomes more globalized.

This list is a bit more heartening. But do such positive lists—ones that it’s good to be on—have any more impact in protecting the treasures we have than lists that tell us what we’re close to losing?

black rhino

The Ol Pejeta Conservancy, on the IUCN Green List, has the largest single population of black rhinos in East Africa. In the WWF International photo above, Dr. Jacques Flamand—leader of the WWF Black Rhino Range Expansion Project in South Africa—has just administered an antidote to wake up a relocated black rhino. When the rhino becomes fully awake, Dr. Flamand will be out of the way, leaving the animal undisturbed to explore its new environs. ©Warren Smart

When getting “listed” is good

Lately, there seems to be a trend to make environmental lists—which are meant to call attention to a specific species or place—positive reinforcements rather than negative soon-to-be-losses. In fact, some have argued for several years now that environmental messages need to be more optimistic and hopeful.

One of the newest lists to reflect that encouraging tone is the IUCN Green List of Protected Areas, launched in November 2014. It is meant to recognize and promote success in managing some of the most valuable natural areas on the planet. The first 23 sites—located in Australia, China, Colombia, France, Italy, Kenya, South Korea and Spain—were selected from 50 put forward as part of the first phase of the new initiative. It is in direct contrast to the organization’s Red List, which logs species at greatest risk of becoming extinct.

Other examples of positive lists include the outdoor gear industry’s Responsible Down Standard list and the Blue Flag list of beaches and marinas that meet high environmental and quality standards.

Many studies have shown that positive messages work. According to a 2010 paper by Rachel James of the University of California, Berkeley, Office of Sustainability, people have only a finite pool of worry: they can only handle so much bad news at a time. More immediate concerns, such as unemployment, are likely to replace long-term fears of biodiversity loss, so an environmental message based on fear alone will not be remembered. What’s more, fear could actually cause inertia. Individuals respond to threats using problem-focused coping (taking action) or emotion-focused coping (denial/apathy). To avoid the latter, people need to feel that they have control.

When it comes to what may be the most important environmental issue we face today, climate change, author Susan D. Clayton writes in her 2012 book titled Oxford Handbook of Environmental and Conservation Psychology, published by the Oxford University Press, that “less dire messages may lead to an increased public understanding of climate change. Empowering messages are more effective than sacrifice messages. Strong images can increase pro-environmental behavior, but negative emotions, such as worry and fear, should be evoked only if an option for alleviating is presented.”

Last month, in March 2014, results of a study published in the science journal PLOS ONE—which involved analyzing the status updates of more than a million users on Facebook—demonstrated that posting a positive message encourages others to spread positivity and take action.

Apparently, that’s what the IUCN is banking on: it expects the protected areas that make it onto its Green List to benefit from international recognition, increased political and financial support, and attention from the tourism industry.

panda eating leaves

Six locations in China—which include nature preserves, parks and scenic areas—are now on the IUCN Green List of Protected Areas. ©Brad Josephs

But if things are good, will we be moved to action?

However, it seems that negative environmental messages are sometimes called for, according to the results of a study by Kenneth R. Lord, assistant professor of marketing at the Jacobs Management Center, State University of New York at Buffalo. The report, titled “Motivating recycling behavior: A quasi-experimental investigation of message and source strategies,” published in the July/August 1994 issue of Psychology and Marketing, Volume 11, showed that although positive appeals yielded the most favorable levels of beliefs and attitude toward recycling, the greatest increase in recycling behavior came in response to a negatively framed message conveyed by a personal acquaintance.

Do you think this new spate of positive lists is an improvement in messaging and will encourage more environmental action? Or are you more motivated when you hear that the loss of a place or wildlife species is imminent?

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



  1. Courtney Hughes May 7, 2015 at 2:28 pm - Reply

    Plain and simple, avoid the doomsday approach. People are so inundated with negative images and stories they become apathetic. It’s easier to turn “off” your response and avoid the constant negativity than the alternative – feeling helpless and hopeless. We need to inspire hope and have heart that people will pick up that call for change, if and when they see, hear and feel the positive benefits. Positivity goes so much farther!!!

  2. Natalie May 2, 2015 at 2:58 pm - Reply

    While referring to the IUCNS Red List with words such as ‘doom, depressing and despair,’ it is important to remember that the Red List is an extremely important and useful conservation tool. It allows scientists to identify threatened or endangered species’ ranges, information which is used to identify Key Biodiversity Areas, guide Protected Area placement, as well as identify the need to develop and implement Species Conservation Action Plans. It is essential to raise awareness, drive conservation action and guide decisions. Along with the IUCN Green List of Protected Areas, it encourages positive environmental action and motivates us to do something about our most pressing conservation challenges. The Green List of Protected Areas recognises cases of equitable governance and effective management which allow achievement of conservation goals. The successfully Green Listed parks can act as examples for others who strive to improve their standards and realise their conservation goals. Both tools should be recognised for their power to drive positive action.

  3. Philip Phil-Eze May 2, 2015 at 6:24 am - Reply

    Yes, conservation is a long distant race really where returns on investment and/or efforts do not manifest readily. However, i believe that good news of success stories and how they were achieved will certainly boost the moral and conviction of new converts to sustain their efforts.

  4. William F. Rose III May 1, 2015 at 11:55 am - Reply

    Some additional thoughts: Many species that are endangered or threatened are more tolerant than we are led to believe! Remember the Spotted Owl controversy. Extreme positions that were taken and eventually won, caused a huge area of the Northwest to loose jobs, industry and towns. Local citizens whole life were turned upside down, including mine. As it turned out, the Owl was better off than presented and thriving. The controversy was unjustified. The Red Cockaded Woodpecker in East Texas is another example! Turns out that the RCW was endangered, but was more tolerant of humans than expected. I had a nesting site along a major highway. However, there were only three birds and were in breeding. I wanted to move these RCW to a National Forest that had at least 125 birds, so that they would be able to take advantage of a diversified gene pool. I was not permitted
    do this by Gov. Agency. Really sad how inflexible situations can become!

  5. Mojisola Oyeronke Adegbile May 1, 2015 at 11:53 am - Reply

    Yes i think this could engender CONSERVATION because everyone performs better when there ‘s a positive approach more than when the approach seems negative.

  6. William F. Rose III May 1, 2015 at 7:33 am - Reply

    I think a good approach would be to explain why it is important to save a particular species and the impact of extinct species. I believe that most individuals are so far removed from the environment and nature that most individuals under stand the interconnected roles every Flora and Fauna plays in our daily lives. For example, look at the current lack of understanding of Bees and the role they play in Agriculture. Also, we need to get ahead of the “polarization” curve with facts and reduce the hysteria and court battles!

  7. Orume Robinson May 1, 2015 at 7:30 am - Reply

    Species depletion in most areas is as a result of human activities such as poaching, deforestation and which are also fueled by h consumption patterns, poverty, disrespect of land rights, corruption, economic growth etc. In a case where conservation efforts are successful in reviving a declining population,the success story should be celebrated and disseminated as wildly as possible. However, such efforts must be sustained so funding cannot be expected to drop. That is why modern day conservation efforts should always seek sustainable funding mechanisms especially in developing countries where government funding is either low or misappropriated. This implies contemporary conservation funding cannot limit to species recovery but must be sustained to also improved livelihoods of local communities living adjacent to biodiversity area. Only such sustained efforts can ensure the long term viability of species that just recovered.

  8. Tony Powell April 30, 2015 at 11:21 am - Reply

    I think we will have to do both good and bad deeds to save species in the future, by bad I mean re-managing the lands in a way which truly saves one species over another. Not a popular view, but conservation works in most complicated ways. As an aside, I’ve just been reading how the threatened specialist that is the African migrant songbird the Nightingale is badly affected by overgrazing by deer. Added to that, one of its primary food sources is the humble earthworm and Wood Ant both of which are being gradually poisoned out of existence by man. From the bottom up is the only way to save this less-showy species, whose presence is largely determined by opening your ears to its fantastic voice.

  9. Manuel (Alberto) Medina April 30, 2015 at 9:09 am - Reply

    Do You Mean _ Better To Concentrate on Solutions, Rather Than On The Problem??? _ The Re-conceptualization of Life and All It’s Relations, A Reverence For Mother Earth??? _ Fact Still Remains Though, As In Everything, What Is A Shift of Paradigm Worth???

  10. Don Lewis April 30, 2015 at 9:07 am - Reply

    Absolutely we need both…to understand successes and failures helps ensure reward parties doing the right thing and repeat actions that work and try to hold parties accountable and mitigate activities that cause damage.

    Lots of evidence around social marketing telling us that people want to be as good (or bad) as their neighbours. If we only have the negative news then it is clear no one else is changing behaviour to save specific ecosystems or species so why should we. It also just plain gives us hope which is also a powerful tool for action.

  11. Kim Andrews April 30, 2015 at 9:06 am - Reply

    The blue flag award for clean beaches in the U.K. is popular with local councils as it attract more tourists and therefore more revenue to the area. Would a green flag award be helpful? If it is ultilised to generate revenue that is invested back into conservation projects I think it would.

  12. William F. Rose III April 30, 2015 at 9:03 am - Reply

    Good news and Positive Results attract more individuals our cause. No one will likely respond to constant desperation. People like to be on a positive and progressive movement that is actually accomplishing tangible and measurable goals. Constant scare tactics are often tuned out and make possible joiners feel that it is hopeless to join in. So lets respond with accomplishments and doable goals and share what each can to do to help in their own way!

  13. Abhijit Ghose April 30, 2015 at 9:02 am - Reply

    Before taking any action, it is always prudent to know “Do”s and “Don’t”s. When we come for conservation, we must be careful so that we know that through our enthusiastic action we do not make further depletion of an already threatened species. For this purpose we need to know what are the threatened species before hand. But if a Success Story of Conservation is narrated, it will certainly motivate others for taking a similar action at another place for replication of same conservation efforts for same species or doing some thing differently for same or another species. Hence efforts should be made constantly to document Success Stories, Good Practices etc for inspirational/motivational purposes.

  14. Don Reinhardt April 30, 2015 at 8:59 am - Reply

    Of course it will, to most, when positive movement gives good reactions people like to get on board and keep the momentum going.

  15. Kinga Monica April 30, 2015 at 1:38 am - Reply

    ‘History shows it will not’….if our governments continue to support the ‘business as usual’ paradigm of thinking. Mainstream media is also a key influencer in many peoples’ lives, if we don’t see more, positive change-affirming actions carried out by others, individually or in groups on our tv’s, the things remains as they are or get ignored. Climate change denial has also negative bahaviour shaping effect on a massive scale to the point that entire sections of otherwise intelligent society behave irrationally instead of acting upon facts and improving the situation at much lesser cost to everyone. Unemployment can be sorted out very easily through the creation of many green jobs in every country but we need to move from scarcity to abundance paradigm of thinking and replicate positive business and social enhancement models, fast. We could also do well with getting rid of outdated bueraucratic rules and laws that quash optimism and good will and thus prevent action in our communities. Lists such as those in this great article can provide insights into how well we are doing in terms of environmental performance. We need guidelines, but my strong feeling is it is equally important to envision and devise practical green business models that enable the whole strata of societies to think and act in solution-oriented ways to manifest positive outcomes.

  16. Bkmohanty April 29, 2015 at 7:36 pm - Reply

    yes I believe a positive list will bring more awareness among the public to understand the conservation ethics and will encourage to save,study and use.

  17. Troy Leopardo April 29, 2015 at 5:19 pm - Reply

    History shows it will not.

  18. Mark Jordahl April 28, 2015 at 3:00 pm - Reply

    As with most things, I believe it is all about balance. Highlight the challenges to let people see problems need to be solved, but then give examples of where similar challenges have been dealt with successfully. They won’t be lulled into a false sense of complacency by the good news, but won’t feel it is helpless because of the bad news. They will see that there is a path forward.

  19. Susan Newman April 28, 2015 at 2:20 pm - Reply

    You raise a valid point. They say that people are afraid or shy away from what they don’t understand and when so many say different things, they can find it hard to get behind a cause.
    But whenever I tell someone the statistic I read that 50 % of the wildlife on this planet has disappeared in the last 40 years, they do look alarmed.
    Yet even that doesn’t mean they will act.
    So, perhaps the answer is to go positive and include them, then they will be proud to share something good they are doing.

    Great article for showing us to lean the other way!

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