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?
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.
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,