Emotions in Biodiversity Conservation

The physicist Charles Snow postulated in his lecture The Two Cultures of the year 1959 that the intellectual world was divided into two spheres, the field of science on the one hand, and the world of arts and humanities on the other. The first was inhabited by scientist that developed their theories in a complex language only understandable by themselves, while the second studied the highest manifestations of the human spirit, such as art, philosophy and morality, but did not seek points of contact with the other culture.

Nowadays this division is still present, and the scientists (except for some outstanding exceptions) are not able to transmit the results of their investigations to the rest of the population. This is not a minor issue, considering the empowerment that the ordinary citizen has experienced in recent years, thanks to the ability to pressure their authorities through social networks and massive public demonstrations, especially in developing countries.

There is a consensus in the scientific world that biodiversity is suffering a serious crisis, and the idea that we are experiencing a massive extinction of species is gaining strength. Scientists have tried to spread this message through pessimistic predictions, descriptions of threats and many numbers, indices and graphs that have not motivated the population to do something about it.

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Conservation biologists have the mission of attracting the attention of the public in a supersaturated society of information, where people no longer have the time or the patience to read long scientific reports. A clear symptom of this, is the success of Twitter, a social network that has become the official platform for heated political and environmental debates, where the arguments are limited to an extension of 140 characters, making impossible a deeper understanding of each position. We must be able to understand this new context, adapting the way we communicate our message.

The Chilean biologist Humberto Maturana argues that emotions are often more important than reasons in influencing our points of view, priorities and decisions in life. There is no doubt that feelings, such as affection and admiration for nature, are some of the deepest motivations for people involved in biodiversity conservation.

Many of the professionals who work in our field do so because in their childhood they lived a transformative experience in nature or because they have developed during their life an emotional relationship with animals and plants. I am not saying that reasons and logical arguments are not necessary. I only think that if emotions are so important in our personal relationship with nature, we should not ignore this human dimension when transmitting our messages to the population.

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Nature photography, for example, has a tremendous potential here. This discipline has undergone a digital revolution, which has allowed photographers to capture images never seen before. When people see a great photograph of wildlife, they can easily identify with the animal’s expressions, since they recognize traits that seem familiar to them. Although Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” was published over 150 years ago, many people seem to have not internalized that animals are nothing less than our distant relatives, or as Aldo Leopold suggested, our fellow travellers in the odyssey of the evolution.

Leopold himself is an example of how emotion can change the way we think. As detailed in his essay Thinking Like a Mountain of 1949, witnessing a “fierce green fire dying” from the eyes of a wolf mother, made him realize the intrinsic value of the animal. Years later he could understand in a rational way the importance of the wolves to the ecosystems, something that he had intuited much before through emotion.

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This experience perhaps motivated Leopold to move away from the utilitarian and pragmatic school of Gifford Pinchot and to postulate a new Land Ethic, occupying poetic forms to communicate his ideas and reflections. Artistic expressions such as photography, poetry and even music (such as Hans Zimmer’s incredible work for the Planet Earth II television series) can help us understand that our relationship with nature goes far beyond utilitarian value.

I think the conservationist strategy should appeal to the best of us, our ability to help others without expecting anything in return. The latest developments in world politics may make us think that campaigns that appeal to fear and self-interest are currently the most successful. I hope our movement can avoid focusing on the things we fear, and dare to communicate a novel and attractive message, appealing to our emotions and the things we really love and care about.

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