Ralph Underhill worked on planning casework and water policy at the RSPB for seven years, before joining the Public Interest Research Centre where has worked on the Common Cause for Nature report which wss published yesterday.
He also draws cartoons for this website.
Why should we care?
‘Why should we care about hedgehogs?’ Jon Snow asks Bill Bailey.
I watch; slack-jawed.
When I come to my senses I begin shouting and waving my fist at the television (one of several reasons I have largely given up watching it!)
‘Why should we care about the Mona Lisa?’
‘Why should we care about money?’
‘Why should we care about life?’
‘Why should we care about bloody Jon Snow!!!’
Can you imagine John Humphrys asking George Osborne on the Today program ‘Why should we care about the economy?’ I think to myself.
Gradually I calm down, and once have wiped the rabid foam from my lips I feel quite melancholy.
Have we really come to this? Have our imaginations become so limited that we can only view the whole world through the limited scope of either its service to humankind or its monetary worth?
Thankfully the answer is a resounding no; despite the relentless focus of the media and politicians on economic value of everything, this is not actually what most people care about.
Just look at the millions of people who join conservation organisations. They don’t join because they think kestrels are worth £52 to the local economy, they are members because they value the wonder and beauty of wildlife. For them – like me – there is something awe inspiring and unquantifiable about the natural world, something that I can feel but not easily explain.
Moreover, research consistently shows that when people are asked what they really care about most they rarely say money or the economy. The most common answers are friends, family, community, and happiness.
Despite it being contrary to what we actually care about, this single-minded economic view of the world continues to dominate. I am not sure when the quarterly figures for Marks and Spencer’s became news but somehow they did. Apparently this information is both relevant to my life and vital to the growth of our ailing economy. But it’s not just the prevalence of economic stories that is of concern; it is how money has become the starting point for all discussion. Debates on education now seem to focus on how to generate the best future workforce, and NHS patients are increasingly viewed as customers. What about the joy of learning, or the inherent worth of health and wellbeing?
Why should conservationists care about a world that gives so much emphasis to economics and consumerism?
Conservation does not exist in isolation, whether we like it or not what happens in the wider world impacts on our work. We are all afloat in a cultural soup, constantly bombarded with messages that may be working against our cause. An increasing body of research suggests that such messages are likely to make us care less about other people and our environment and feel apathetic. These messages – and this cultural soup – don’t encourage people to get behind conservation and other social or political issues. In fact, they actively discourage it. In this context it becomes acceptable – it even makes sense – to ask why we should care about hedgehogs.
Research shows that using economic terminology and treating people as self-interested consumers only serves to make them more self-interested. Whereas treating people as capable, active, and caring members of a group will encourage them to behave in this way. Although it seems like common sense it is something we seem to have forgotten.
The Common Cause for Nature report, published yesterday, uses social psychology research – which highlights the insights above – to examine how conservation organisations can communicate and work in ways that help motivate people. It makes a series of recommendations on how to improve existing practice.
But conservation organisations can’t keep ignoring this cultural soup: while we continue to tinker around the edges it is the torrent that is feeding water into the metaphorical dam that is at breaking point (as set out in my previous guest blog). The report also recommends that NGOs broaden their remit. As our understanding grows of how the media, advertising and other areas of our lives impacts on people’s motivation to act on behalf of the environment, it all points to the fact that if we do not address them then conservation will never be able to achieve its goal of creating a world that is rich in wildlife and truly sustainable.
Confronting such large forces seems overwhelming, but if we truly want to galvanize people to get behind conservation then it seems to be our only option. We can either continue to float along in the cultural soup and manage the slow and inevitable decline of what we care about or we can face up to the fact we need to try and change. It may not be a battle we can win but we won’t know until we have tried.
This new understanding should fill us with hope: it allows us to understand why we have been failing to mobilize public support and better still it actually provides us with new tools and opportunities to address this pressing issue.
The report has a detailed examination of the communications of the conservation sector, but one thing that really struck me from our findings was that we don’t seem to express or celebrate the inherent worth of nature very much: its magnificence and beauty.
This really struck a chord with me: during a decade of work in several conservation organisations I realised I hardly ever talked about these feelings. In part, this is because they are considered unscientific, but largely it was a result of professionalisation. Love of nature has too many associations with being hippy and unpragmatic. Over time we have forgotten how to talk about our love of the natural world and started to use the language of business and government. Clearly, I am not suggesting every stakeholder meeting, regardless of topic, is spent waxing lyrical about the beauty of a starling murmuration. However, we must work harder to bring a love of nature back into our work, even if it is small steps like talking about wildlife to a civil servant during a coffee break. Not only will it help inspire them it is also likely to inspire you: and by doing this, in a small way at least, we can start to add some nature back into our cultural soup and daily experience.
Back to Hedgehogs
Anyone who has had a close encounter with a hedgehog will instantly know why we should care about them. It is not something that can be described; it is something that is felt. It may not be scientific or objective or quantifiable but is real and part of what makes us human. We must work to address those aspects of society (the ‘cultural soup’) that are making us care less about nature, and find opportunities to embrace and express the beauty and wonder of it.
Maybe the answer to Jon Snow’s question ‘why should we care about hedgehogs?’ is ‘you have clearly never seen one’…