Destroyed habitats, species driven to extinction – for years, the environmental message has been a warning of impending loss and doom. Some conservationists are now stressing positive trends to induce change.
Blazing hot rock outcrops, rugged cliffs and sand dunes. A colony of seals basks in the sun while little penguins splash about in the water. Sound like a paradise? It is. Montague Island located on the south coast of New South Wales in Australia is one of the country’s best-managed nature reserves.
But it wasn’t always that way. Not so long ago, the island’s vulnerable ecosystem was in tatters with the introduction of weed species such as kikuyu. They ended up smothering native vegetation in some places, affecting the habitat of wildlife seeking refuge or breeding on the island. That prompted park authorities to take a number of measures to push back the weeds, restore natural habitats and raise the island’s penguin population.
Those efforts have earned the Montague Island several awards in Australia. And, now park managers are hoping their work will soon pay off on a global level as well. The revitalized reserve could well become one of the first to make it to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)’s upcoming Green List of well-managed Protected Areas.
“We really need some positive messages, positive reinforcement,” James Hardcastle from the IUCN says. He’s one of the people involved in launching the group’s Green List at the IUCN World Parks Congress in Sydney in November.
In contrast to the IUCN’s well-known Red List of Threatened Species which logs species at greatest risk of becoming extinct, the Green List of Protected Areas highlights the success of well-managed national parks and wilderness areas. “We have had a lot of negative communication, negative messages, things are always bad. We need to have a better way of expressing when things work,” Hardcastle says.
A few years ago, the IUCN created a promotional film called “Love. Not Loss”. It underlined the importance of positive messages and emphasizing humans’ connection to nature in a bid to induce people to care about species loss and change their behavior.
Spurring positive action
Beyond highlighting exemplary projects, the Green List could also set new environmental benchmarks. Being on the list could well become a quality seal for a protected area, much like the FSC global forest certification system for wood and paper products or the “Blue Flag” certification for beaches and marinas that meet high environmental and quality standards.
The IUCN expects the protected areas that make it onto the Green List to benefit from international recognition, increased political and financial support as well as attention from the tourism industry. The hope is that this will encourage other protected areas and reserves to follow suit and make efforts to meet the Green List standards as well.
It’s a tactic increasingly used by charities and NGOs. Earlier this year, the results of a study by Facebook – which involved analyzing the status updates of more than a billion users – showed that posting a positive message encourages others to spread positivity and take action.
The concept of the “Ark Warder” builds on this premise. Located in northern Germany, Ark Warder is Europe’s largest center for rare and endangered domestic animals. The group works to conserve old, long-valued, now-ignored species. The aim is to have the most vulnerable ones struck off the Red List of Threatened Species.
Visitors are encouraged to visit the park and learn about rare species of pigs, ducks, donkeys, cattle and horses, pet them and feed them. By donating some money, one can “adopt” one’s favorite animal. Visitors can even take home some endangered duck or chicken species and take care of them.
“Our visitors experience that they can play an active part in protecting these endangered species. That is very encouraging for them,” Stefanie Klingel who is part of the Ark Warder team says. “We benefit much more from spreading positive messages rather than painting a dire picture.”
No Green List without a Red List
And, that approach is not just limited to biodiversity protection. The idea of a Green List championing best practice models to induce a change in behavior has also made it to the fashion industry. Kirsten Brodde works for the Greenpeace Detox Campaign. It raises pressure on the world's most popular clothing brands to work with their suppliers to stop hazardous chemicals being dumped into water bodies.
In her free time, Brodde is the editor of a green fashion blog. She’s created Green Lists of ethical fashion brands and stores that strive to produce pesticide-free cotton apparel in fair working conditions. “The message especially to young people is: There is a lot of fashion that is stylish and not too expensive and, at the same time, fair and eco friendly,” Brodde says.
However, she adds, no one would be interested in such products if conventional producers had not been named and shamed by NGOs like Greenpeace. “I am convinced that you first need to have the bad guys finding themselves sailing against the wind in order for the positive alternatives to have the wind in their sails,” she says.
That seems to be true for endangered species as well: If no one knew about the threat of extinction, no one would see a reason to support a project protecting them. The IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species has been in place for 50 years now.
“We could not have asked for a better kind of barometer and tool to raise awareness on things that are not working,” James Hardcastle from the IUCN says of the famous Red List. “I do not think it will ever be the case that we can forget bad things, there will always be that side to it.”
And without the bad there may be no good since donors, eager to see a return on their investments, will want to see improvements – and further spread the positive message.