Behaviours for conserving biodiversity

R.M. Cowling
Distinguished Professor, African Centre of Coastal Palaeoscience, Nelson Mandela University, Botany Department, Port Elizabeth, South Africa

“The real problem of humanity is the following: We have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions and godlike technology.” - EO Wilson1

The pressures facing biodiversity in and outside of protected areas continue to rise in response to a rapid increase in the ecological footprint of humans. While the past few decades have seen a promising increase in the proclamation of protected areas, natural habitat is being lost at an alarming rate and populations of most monitored species are in a decline of unprecedented steepness2. Conservation assessments at both the regional3 and global scales4 recommend that at least 50% of the planning domain should be under some form of conservation management to ensure the long-term persistence of biodiversity patterns and processes. This ambitious, yet biologically defensible, target will be difficult to achieve. We will not get there without far-reaching transformation of values, norms and behaviours of individuals and institutions5 and 6. This is a tall order; our behaviours are rooted in our long evolutionary history as Pleistocene hunter-gatherers where the selective regimes for cultural evolution were vastly different from the Holocene and the present Anthropocene7. However, Homo sapiens is a smart species, capable of rapid cultural evolution including the acquisition of behavioural traits that are adaptive in the contemporary selective regime. We must create the institutions and elect leaders who can help us adapt to these unprecedented times8. In particular, we must redesign the way we do research for safeguarding biodiversity for it to have an appreciable impact on reducing the loss of wild species and spaces9.

In this essay, I describe a schema for the generation of transdisciplinary knowledge that responds to the values and associated norms of society. I then describe an operational model or “theory of change” for mainstreaming biodiversity into all sectors of society. The model has the potential to transform research on conservation science to make it more useful for implementation. I stress that this, and any other theory of change, will flounder unless the prevalent economic order is transformed from its dependence on fossil fuels and perpetual economic growth as the primary source of wellbeing for humans. I further argue that the learning organization embedded in the model provides an opportunity for rapid cultural diffusion among different disciplines and stakeholders, thus providing the building blocks for the swift behavioural changes required of humans to adapt to reduce biodiversity loss. Finally, I posit that social marketing10 of the desired behaviours needs to be undertaken at scale to engender pro-nature behaviour across a wider range of stakeholders. After all, conservation is about human choice11.

It's the (stupid) economy

James Carville, strategist for Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign, coined the vote-catching phrase: “it’s the economy, stupid”.  It speaks to the overarching importance for citizens of economic growth and wealth creation. However, since the late 1960s, economies in most parts of the world have become increasingly “stupid” by failing to respond to a feedback that has been screaming in our faces for decades: it is not possible to sustain perpetual economic growth in a biosphere with finite natural resources and a limited capacity to absorb waste12. The outcomes are calamitous for both nature and humans. Rising per capita consumption in the developed world and increasing populations in the developing world are stripping the Earth of its resilience at precisely the time when it needs to absorb the huge and impending ecological shocks that climate change will bring. 

While many socio-economic indicators suggest marked improvements over the past 60 years in human well-being across the globe13, the same cannot be said for most environmental indicators14 and measures of well-being15. The prime socio-economic indicator used to assess a nation’s prosperity is the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which measures the total value of the goods and services produced by an economy over a particular period. GDP fails to take into consideration depreciation of capital, including natural capital; nature’s services are, therefore underpriced and hence, overexploited16. Fortunately, there is a healthy debate on how to define indices of well-being that take into consideration changes in natural, social, human and built capital17

Why do I start this essay by commenting on the economy? Because changing our economic world view and institutions must be our priority if we are to succeed in safeguarding biodiversity. Neoliberal economics, which has improved the material status of tens of millions of people in the developing world, has now run its course; it must be replaced by a new economic order that includes circular (low waste) production, universal income and high tax rates on the wealthy18. Conservation scientists are mostly silent about the need to transform economies to safeguard nature. They need to join their peers in the social justice movements in demanding these changes. Without them, conservationists will forever be swimming upstream against a punishing flow of biodiversity-eroding market forces.


Humans are strongly social animals whose behaviour has been shaped over some 300 000 years as hunter-gatherers19. The first evidence of cognitive modernity emerged along South Africa’s Cape south coast starting about 160 000 years ago. It is likely that modern human behaviour emerged in the context of the Cape coast’s spectacular biodiversity where our unusually large brains were wired to efficiently harvest a wide array of edible plants, intertidal molluscs and a megafauna of plains game20. Biodiversity was at the centre of our lifestyles.

A behavioural consequence of hunter-gatherer subsistence is a tendency to discount the future: get what you can today and let tomorrow take care of itself21. This makes sense in a world where spatial variation in foraging provided for daily needs. High discount rates are maladaptive in today’s world which requires humans to make sacrifices in the short term, for example reduce consumption, to enable the well-being of others (including other species) sometime in the distant future. We find this very hard to do unless there are very strong incentives, both at the individual and group levels, to adopt a more long-term perspective22.

Fortunately, there are some aspects of our behaviour that potentially augur well for our survival under contemporary selective regimes. Firstly, humans co-operate with non-kin like no other species23. And when the incentives are right, we do this in spectacular ways. Scientists, for example, show remarkable co-operation across racial, gender and cultural divides, incentivised mostly by sheer curiosity and enhanced status. We know that tackling the biodiversity crisis will require co-operation amongst institutions at all scales, and we know that this is something we can do.

Secondly, humans show compassion to other animals and even plants24. We are outraged by cruelty to other species. Biophilia is embedded in some way in the behaviours of most people, a legacy – perhaps – of our hunter-gatherer lifestyles where the prey were held in reverence and knowledge of useful plants attracted status. 

Thirdly, we are extremely adept at the non-genetic transfer of learned behaviour, namely social learning25. Our cultures can evolve rapidly because of selection amongst groups for traits that confer adaptive behaviours that benefit individuals26. Again, incentives are important, as is leadership that exemplifies the desired behaviours.

Fourthly, our minds can comprehend metaphors and symbols and use these to unite disparate groups and encourage specific behaviours27, for example the use of emoticons. There is great potential to use metaphors and parables in messaging and marketing initiatives to engender pro-nature behaviours. 

Finally, despite generally high discount rates, humans can make sacrifices now that confer rewards in the longer term. Obvious examples are religions where the reward for appropriate behaviour is delayed until after death!28

So, it is not all doom-and-gloom when it comes to human behaviour and the prospects for safeguarding biodiversity. Indeed, there is evidence in many countries of a relatively recent shift in values and norms in favour of biodiversity conservation29. The challenge is to accelerate these trends and to do this at scale. In the next sections, I touch on some suggestions for doing this, focusing on how we generate knowledge, inclusively debate its implications and package the outcomes in targeted messaging campaigns.


The purpose of pragmatic, mission-orientated disciplines such as conservation science is to produce knowledge and understanding that is useful for policy, implementation and management30. Yet conservation scientists often frame their projects and present their findings in ways that are irrelevant or meaningless to the intended users – people who operate in real-world contexts31 and 32. Like inequality, the biodiversity crisis fits a situation where “facts are uncertain, values in dispute, stakes high and decisions urgent”33. The normal practice of science is poorly equipped to deal with such situations: we need a new way of doing things34. I provide some pointers below.

Complex problems such as biodiversity loss cannot be solved by unidisciplinary research35, 36 and 37. Max-Neef38 provides a disciplinary hierarchy and means of integrating across disciplines that is very compelling for generating user-useful knowledge (Fig. 1). At the base of the hierarchy are located the empirical (uni)disciplines; their numbers are growing rapidly in response to increasing specialization. Next up are the pragmatic disciplines – ones that reflect what we are capable of doing. Interdisciplinary research transpires when pragmatic disciplines “define the purpose of”39 or co-ordinate research in the empirical ones. At the normative level are disciplines that deal with the rules of behaviour of humans – customs, conventions and institutions. At the ultimate level are the subjective disciplines – ethics, philosophy and theology. These last-mentioned disciplines, which have become increasingly marginalised in the past 100 years, deal with the most important aspects of a society: its beliefs and values that define its norms and hence, what kind of world it wants.

Figure 1

Figure 1

Figure 1: The hierarchy of knowledge developed by Max-Neef (2005) showing the four disciplinary levels focused on conservation sciences at the pragmatic level.  Empirical disciplines at the base of the pyramid describe what exists, those at the pragmatic level describe what can be done, those at the normative level describe what is desired, and the top purposive level deals with disciplines that describe what should be done. The normative land-use policies, laws, and planning should reflect spatially the values embedded in the country’s populace depicted by the ultimate level of the knowledge hierarchy—the purposive or value level.

Transdisciplinary research results when there is co-ordination across all levels of the hierarchy40: ethics co-ordinates research in land-use planning which co-ordinates research in ecosystem services, which co-ordinates research in ecology, sociology, psychology, and economics (Fig. 1). Achieving transdisciplinarity, or consilience of knowledge systems41, will not be easy. Barriers include the paucity of transdisciplinary thinkers, itself a consequence of education philosophies which encourage the atomization of disciplines and enforce the boundaries between them42 and 43. We cannot afford to wait for conservative organizations such as universities to provide leadership in promoting transdisciplinary research for safeguarding biodiversity; instead, we must create new learning organizations to do this. Below I present a framework for doing this by mainstreaming biodiversity into our production systems and landscapes.


In the context of natural resource management and conservation, the objective of mainstreaming is to internalize the goals of safeguarding biodiversity and the sustainable use of biophysical resources into economic sectors and development models, policies, and programs, and therefore into all human behavior44. The concept is entrenched in several articles of the Convention on Biological Diversity and is the explicit objective of the Strategic Priority 2 of the Global Environmental Facility’s GEF-3 Program of Work: “Mainstreaming biodiversity in production landscapes and sectors”. Despite the allocation by the GEF of large amounts of funding to mainstreaming over the past few decades, there is almost no research on this topic in the primary literature45

An operational model46 or “theory of change”47 was developed for mainstreaming biodiversity (Fig. 2). The model is designed to bring together scientists and other stakeholders into a social process aimed at building consensus on how to develop and implement pro-nature policies and practices. This process is loosely divided into three phases: assessment, planning (strategy development) and management (implementation of strategy). A key feature of the model is the identification of opportunities and constraints for implementing change. These can be incorporated into scenarios – plausible narratives of possible futures – which inform strategy development48. At the core of this framework is adaptive management49 – or learning by doing50 – which is nested in a learning organization where scientists and other stakeholders can debate and reflect on the relevance of research outcomes for policy and management51

Figure 2

Figure 2

Figure 2: An operational model for mainstreaming the safeguarding of biodiversity. Adapted from Cowling et al (2008) (see reference 46).

This is not the normal way scientists generate knowledge. By providing a platform for engagement by stakeholders from different disciplines and with different worldviews, the operational model (Fig. 2) seeks to nurture transdisciplinary insights useful for safeguarding nature. Moreover, participation in the process is likely, via cultural exchanges, to transform values, norms and behaviours of participants and thus achieve more inclusive and workable solutions to overcoming the biodiversity crisis.

As a theory of change, the operational model has validity at different scale and contexts, for example for short-term projects in small domains as well as national and global-scale projects seeking to achieve transformative outcomes over decades-long periods52. South Africa has a decades-long history of mainstreaming biodiversity into the policy of many sectors - including forestry, agriculture, fisheries and mining - by engaging with stakeholders to develop and implement strategies that benefit both the sector and biodiversity (‘’win-win” outcomes)53 and 54. Perhaps the most successful mainstreaming initiative in this country was the incorporation of targets for the conservation of ecosystems into the land-use planning process. This was achieved by writing new legislation that discouraged loss of habitat from high-priority ecosystems, steering new developments to ecosystems where there was considerable flexibility for achieving biodiversity targets55

Despite progress made, South African conservation scientists, along with those from elsewhere in the world, have, with few exceptions56 and 57, failed to document as social processes the implementation of conservation projects. The operational model for mainstreaming (Fig. 2) emphasizes continuous feedback from the coal face of implementation to a learning organization of engaged and diverse stakeholders. This process of engagement and the often difficult and messy ways of achieving consensus in learning organizations need to become research topics in themselves. Generally, there is a distressing lack of rigorous research on the social processes required for safeguarding biodiversity.  

Social marketing

How do we ensure the insights gained from learning organizations are effective in engendering pro-nature behaviours at scale? Increased awareness and knowledge about environmental concerns, and even embracing pro-nature values, does not necessarily translate into adopting pro-nature behavior58. Therefore, pragmatic solutions are required to overcome the inertia in stimulating pro-nature values and behaviors of individuals and organizations that are required for mainstreaming. 

Social marketing59 is very promising in this respect: rather than attempting to understand the complex causes of behavior, it takes existing behaviors as a given, and then seeks to identify the barriers to behavior change, and design specific incentive-based programs to overcome these. Incentives relate to both internal (e.g. absence of skills, opposing values and beliefs) and external barriers (e.g. inadequate infrastructure and support). Social marketers can use the outputs from the social assessment of the operational model to frame messaging for different segments of stakeholders and then use commercial marketing techniques and social media to persuade stakeholders to adopt appropriate behaviors.

Social marketing has been extremely successful in achieving behavior change in the health, social development and waste management sectors, but has yet to penetrate natural resource management and conservation sectors60 and 61. Depending on the outcome of the assessment of governance and institutional capacities, it will likely be necessary to implement programs of social marketing to bring about rapidly the desired levels of behavior change.


Humans are facing an existential crisis. The resources that sustain us are being degraded at exponential rates that most humans find hard to comprehend cognitively. As conservation scientists we need to change the ways in which we generate and communicate knowledge. We must give purpose to our work by becoming engaged in in the messy, social processes of mainstreaming biodiversity into all sectors of society. And we must work with social marketers to ensure that this knowledge is widely diffused in a way that engenders behaviour change outside of our learning organizations. By adopting these approaches, conservation scientists can contribute to the cultural revolution required for safeguarding the Earth’s biodiversity.


Thank you to Andrew Balmford for inviting me to write this essay. Yadvinder Malhi and Linda Partridge commented on the essay as did Mike Edbury, who also co-ordinated its production.