Wednesday, May 4, 2016

An Economy for 2100

Helm, D. (2015). Natural Capital: Valuing the Planet, Yale University Press. 296 pp. (ISBN: 9780300213942).

[What appears here is the original submitted version of a book review appearing in the journal BioScience at]

With excitement and also trepidation, I cracked open Helm’s new book, “Natural Capital: Valuing the Planet”. Would the book chart a path towards reformed economics that would actually nurture the planet for future generations? Or was it simply another advertisement for economic valuation of nature? I soon discovered that Helm delivered key components of the roadmap to an economy for 2100, leaving me wanting more.

Helm’s mission is bold and important. He seeks to provide a set of strategies for truly sustainable economic growth, while admitting that current trajectories are systematically flawed (both global and national, in virtually all nations). He seeks to persuade any reader of the necessity of this task—the neoclassical economist who sees no problem in environmental degradation (merely progress), and equally the naïve environmentalist who imagines that we can and must erase virtually all human impact on Earth. The book itself delivers a message neatly between these two extremes, but ambitiously so: a vision of sustainability between ‘weak’ and ‘strong’ (maintaining aggregate natural capital), which includes a reversal of the environmental degradation we have seen to date.
Dieter Helm is undeniably ideal for this task. A professor at the University of Oxford, Helm is a deeply engaged economist in British policy. Indeed, Helm chaired that nation’s Natural Capital Committee from its inception in 2012, a committee that includes Georgina Mace and Ian Bateman, among other accomplished experts. The committee’s task is to implement a framework for economic growth that simultaneously both stops the decline in natural capital and improves this crucial foundation for the economy.

In four parts comprising twelve chapters and an introduction, Helm lays out his argument. He first describes the current state of the environment and its relation to the economy, that environmental degradation has real economic consequences, although these may be diffuse, delayed, and difficult to observe directly. He then addresses the question of what we collectively should be seeking, in order to treat future generations fairly. Here Helm proposes his aggregate natural capital rule, which is the conceptual foundation for the whole book. As alluded to above, Helm argues that ‘weak’ sustainability is too weak in allowing the whole-hog substitution of natural capital for built capital, but that ‘strong’ sustainability is too strong in allowing no such substitution. Helm’s compromise is to propose the maintenance and improvement of aggregate natural capital, which could be achieved by investing the revenues from non-renewable resource extraction into the restoration of renewable resources.

The third step is to outline the current set of policies and measures governing and accounting for natural capital and its contribution to the economy (e.g., gross domestic product, GDP), and why and how they are flawed. The fourth step proposes a suite of economic tools and policies that would enable the realization of the aggregate natural capital rule.

The book is well executed. I enjoyed the specific examples of heathlands and moors, including the one that opened the introduction. I appreciated the rigour of the scholarship, and the fluidity of the prose. I also appreciated the manner in which Helm anticipated many critiques, addressing many.
Natural Capital’s greatest contributions are threefold, in my view. First, many readers will be pleased to have a well-articulated economist’s argument for natural capital protection and restoration, and a sustainability rule that is stronger than ‘weak’ sustainability. Few of us can speak the language of neoclassical economics that dominates policymaking in most nations and many multilateral institutions, so having Helm’s convincing argument for this stronger position is reason alone that many concerned with the environment should buy this book. Particularly useful here may be Helm’s proposal for resource extraction endowments, following the logic of Norway’s sovereign wealth fund, which Helm would see put toward the restoration of renewable resource assets.

The second crucial contribution is Helm’s debunking of conventional national accounting and economic policy, and their basis in the flawed measure of GDP. Other volumes are devoted just to this issue, but I appreciated the way Helm lays it bare. Whereas many national governments debate the merits of fiscal austerity vs. Keynesian growth, by which a government bets on future economic growth to rescue national legers from current deficits, Helm seems to argue that both sides have it wrong. If national accounts such as GDP fail to reflect the depreciation of natural capital, which is pervasive in Britain and elsewhere, growth (be it Keynesian or with austerity measures) cannot be sustained—because natural capital is the ultimate asset, the source of all wealth.

The third great contribution is the discussion of the suite of economic tools and policies for achieving truly sustainable growth, including damage compensation schemes and the utilities/trust model for governing common-pool resources and public goods. The utilities model, by which a private or public organization takes responsibility for maintaining key infrastructure (e.g., electricity transmission and distribution lines) and derives revenue from the provision of a needed service (e.g., electricity supply), has worked quite well for water and also—as Helm argues—public parks. Helm extends the model to river catchments, for example, whose revenues could include insurance rebates associated with improved flood mitigation (an ecosystem service enhanced by watershed restoration). It is an intriguing idea that deserves close scrutiny from policymakers everywhere.

Every contribution, no matter how great, also has shortcomings, of course. No one volume can do all, and all of it well. The three most important gaps, in my opinion, are the justification for the aggregate
natural capital rule, the treatment of valuation, and the treatment of the implementation of these important policies.

Helm’s aggregate natural capital rule has two important components, and both encounter difficulty. The first component is the substitutability of improved renewable resources for the non-renewable ones used up, which Helm argues must be measured in monetary terms: “For non-renewables, there is no possible physical substitution, so depletion can be measured only in economic terms.” This claim overlooks the fact that non-renewable resources are not wholly lost, rather converted to less useful forms. Fossil fuels are rendered into carbon dioxide and other by-products; and metals are locked up with other chemicals. In both cases, substitutability could quite easily and naturally be measured in terms of energy potential or exergy, and given the uncertainties associated with monetary metrics in the long run, this might be preferable.

The second component is the substitutability of some renewable resources for others, which Helm allows (e.g., rare habitat for great-crested newts to be substituted for more available nightingale habitat), with insufficient justification. Helm argues for this on the basis of ethics and practicality, but he never expresses the ethical argument, only the practical one, “There will be further economic development. It cannot be stopped.” Even if we accept this premise, it does not follow that we must allow all manner of economic development to proceed, e.g., even if it threatens the last remaining habitat for great-crested newts. Counterarguments would include responsibilities to non-human species (which I have argued for, for all organisms--Chan 2011), and the inappropriateness of assuming that because we have no particular need for such newts, neither will future generations. I see justification for substituting newt habitat for newt habitat, but not nightingales for newts.

The second gap is Helm’s treatment of valuation, which is supposed to be grist for deciding that, e.g., nightingale habitat is a worthy substitution for newt habitat. Helm’s justification here is far too quick, “Benefits require valuation, and the units are explicitly or implicitly money. Hence a price has to be put on nature.” A full response is well beyond the scope of this review, but suffice to say that benefits do not always need to be valuated to enable good societal choices (Vatn & Bromley 1994; Gregory et al. 2012; Ruckelshaus et al. 2015); just because you can derive an implicit price after the fact does not mean that a priori valuation is generally applicable or helpful (McDaniels & Trousdale 2005); and important classes of benefits cannot be valuated appropriately in monetary terms (Chan et al. 2011; Chan et al. 2012). An associated disappointment here is that whereas Helm rightly touts the importance of his approach being an asset-based one (rather than a services- or benefits-based one), he offers no guidance for the special challenge of valuating assets beyond the too-simple assumption that the value of the asset is simply the value of the current uses extended into the future. Accordingly, Natural Capital is overly focused on valuation and pricing when neither needs to be central, and it doesn’t entirely deliver its promise of a truly assets-based approach.

The third gap is that Part Four, “How Can It Be Done?” leaves this key question entirely unanswered. Instead, this section reminds us what good can be anticipated to come from restoration, and reviews important ideas about finance that were already covered extensively in Part Three, “What Needs to Be Done?” Helm himself details the challenge of politics and lobbyists for thwarting good economic policies, but it will fall to other volumes to propose how such policies might transform from fiction to fact.

All told, Helm’s bold volume achieves a great deal in its autopsy of current growth-obsessed economic policies and its blueprints for an economy for the 22nd Century. Now for the hardest part: building the economy Helm imagines.


Chan, K. M. A. (2011). "Ethical extensionism under uncertainty of sentience: Duties to non-human organisms without drawing a line." Environmental Values 20: 323-346.

Chan, K. M. A., J. Goldstein, T. Satterfield, N. Hannahs, K. Kikiloi, R. Naidoo, N. Vadeboncoeur and U. Woodside (2011). Cultural services and non-use values. Natural Capital: Theory & Practice of Mapping Ecosystem Services. P. Kareiva, H. Tallis, T. H. Ricketts, G. C. Daily and S. Polasky. Oxford, UK, Oxford University Press: 206-228.

Chan, K. M. A., T. Satterfield and J. Goldstein (2012). "Rethinking ecosystem services to better address and navigate cultural values." Ecological Economics 74(February): 8-18.

Gregory, R., L. Failing, M. Harstone, G. Long and T. McDaniels (2012). Structured Decision Making: A Practical Guide to Environmental Management Choices. Hoboken, NJ, John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated.

McDaniels, T. L. and W. Trousdale (2005). "Resource compensation and negotiation support in an aboriginal context: Using community-based multi-attribute analysis to evaluate non-market losses." Ecological Economics 55(2): 173-186.

Ruckelshaus, M., E. McKenzie, H. Tallis, et al. (2015). "Notes from the field: Lessons learned from using ecosystem service approaches to inform real-world decisions." Ecological Economics 115: 11-21.

Vatn, A. and D. W. Bromley (1994). "Choices without prices without apologies." Journal of Environmental Economics and Management 26(2): 129-148.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Why Community Engagement Matters in Addressing Climate Change

How does the image above make you feel? Your answer may be key to addressing climate change, because in the post-Paris Climate Change Agreement world, creating more sustainable landscapes depends on local perceptions of proposed low carbon energy development projects.

I recall an exquisite yet frightening ice-sheathed world when the moon rose over my dark neighborhood in Maine following the ice storm of 1998. My family and millions of others lost electricity for over a week. My sister and I called it camping out in our house, but the novelty of life without electricity wore off after a few days.

Before this disaster, I hadn’t given much thought to electricity. Sure, the lights didn’t switch on during the occasional brief power outage, but it had never occurred to me that our running water and toilet used an electricity-powered pump. An extended power outage meant manual flushing. Chipping away ice to fill a bucket from a nearby stream just to flush a toilet made me think twice about flushing. Relying on a woodstove not only for heat but also for cooking gave me a far less romantic view on life before electricity. And washing clothes by hand? No thanks.

Joni Mitchell summed up how I felt in her song lyric: “you don't know what you've got ‘til its gone.” I had taken electricity for granted without ever considering where it came from. Fast-forward a decade and a half later. My family cares where electricity comes from. While my dad installed a solar hot water heater for the showers and PV solar panels to help charge his electric car, I’ve been researching controversy over offshore wind farms, a promising but contentious new(ish) technology.

Wind turbines Scroby Sands
Image credit (edited) Martin Pettitt, Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Part of my research entails asking: what do images of wind turbines - such as those above - make you think about? How do they make you feel?

Your answer may be key in addressing climate change, because in the post-Paris Agreement world, generating climate-friendly electricity depends more than ever on the extent to which people obstruct (e.g., file lawsuits), accommodate or champion low-carbon energy solutions. Perceptions matter.

If you are like the majority of North Americans, you probably have vaguely positive reactions to these images, even if you perhaps feel a little overwhelmed at the height of the turbines and the scale of the London Array Wind farm. According to opinion polls and my survey results, most North Americans support the development of offshore wind farms, which they think of as clean sources of electricity. Despite general public support, problems arise when it comes to financing and figuring out where to put offshore wind farms. Why?

The Economist, August 19, 2010. Public opinion polls show high levels of general support for offshore wind farms, but different activists in Cape Cod have vigorously demonstrated support and opposition to the Cape Wind Farm proposed off the coast of Massachusetts, U.S.  
For an offshore wind farm, the cost per unit of electricity generated is approximately two to five times more expensive than electricity from onshore wind, hydroelectric dams or natural gas plants. These costs will likely diminish over time. Despite the expense, Northern Europeans have already built industrial-scale wind farms. For example, the 175-turbine London Array powers approximately 500,000 homes.

If North Americans get serious about reducing carbon emissions, which will be needed to meet the new goals espoused at the COP21 climate negotiations, harnessing offshore wind could be an important part of a low-carbon energy portfolio, particularly for the Eastern seaboard of the U.S.*

The fledgling offshore wind industry is rapidly gaining momentum in the U.S., but, as evident in numerous lawsuits, it has not been smooth sailing. My PhD research explores why it has been controversial and what can be done to address people's concerns about this technology.**

To dig into this controversy over transitioning to a cleaner source of electricity, I lived on my father's sailboat for a summer and commuted by rowboat to Island Institute in Rockland, Maine. Island Institute is a non-profit organization working to sustain Maine's island and remote coastal communities. They collaborate with communities, developers and decision makers to support effective stakeholder engagement and outreach processes related to offshore wind and other coastal issues. I partnered with staff in their Community Energy Program to help synthesize lessons they have learned about participant satisfaction and frustration with community engagement processes, which have played out on New England islands near proposed offshore wind farm sites.***

Over the summer, I met with island residents involved in energy initiatives and scoured documents about this new use of ocean space. I integrated my academic knowledge about risk perception and decision theory with their on-the-ground experience of how stakeholders were engaged on these islands near proposed wind turbines.

In our report, we emphasize the critical importance of making mutual learning accessible and collaboratively developing community benefits. The overarching goal was not to provide a guide to obtaining consent for offshore wind farms, but rather to improve the decision process and the quality of the interactions between communities, government agencies and project developers in the hopes of creating more acceptable outcomes.

The major lessons I took away from my summer of working closely with Island Institute is that attempts to change energy systems are inherently political and messy affairs. These efforts require long term collaboration with local communities. Conflict is pretty much inevitable because all sources of electricity have drawbacks. We can, however, learn from island residents, many of whom, by choice or necessity, tend to be remarkably self-reliant and mindful of their energy production and consumption.

As of 2015, the foundations for the first offshore wind farm in North America are complete, the majority of adjacent island residents support it and they negotiated for several community benefits from the developer. This could be a launch pad for a massive transition to low carbon electricity sources. Our case studies have relevance for other parts of the world where deliberating with communities and being mindful of their perceptions of low-carbon energy sources is key in transitioning to more sustainable alternatives.

Will transitioning to greener energy sources be too little and too late? Local satisfaction or frustration with renewable energy technologies and siting processes impacts the answer to this crucial question.

The author, Sarah Klain, lived on Peaks Island, Maine until age 5. She is currently a PhD Candidate at the University of British Columbia. Her dissertation focuses on offshore wind farms, risk perception, biodiversity conservation and environmental values. During the summer of 2015, she lived on her father’s sailboat and rowed to work to collaborate with Island Institute. This effort was supported by the UBC's Public Scholars Initiative, the Biodiversity Research: Integrative Training & Education (BRITE) program and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

* For examples of nifty albeit politically naïve renewable energy plans from a team at Stanford University and their partners, see here.
** See Whither Wind in Orion Magazine for a fantastic description of ambivalent environmental values at play in wind farm controversy.
*** We compared three case studies: 1) a wind farm near Block Island, Rhode Island, which, as of 2015, is on track to be the first installed offshore wind project in the U.S.; 2) a proposed offshore wind farm near Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts that is currently moving through regulatory processes; and 3) a proposed offshore wind project near Monhegan, Maine where developers are focusing on refining their floating turbine prototype.

Feature image credit (edited): 
Mariusz Paździora  Flickr (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Contributing to the relational value concept: considering ecological relationships and interdependent values

In their most recent article, published in PNAS, Kai Chan and colleagues (1) propose that framing ecosystem values in terms of relationships can help unpack why we value nature and how research and policy might better reflect our values. In this this thought-provoking conceptualization, Chan and colleagues consider two primary types of relational values. First, they consider relationships between people and places; that people value specific places of meaning, not necessarily an ecosystem service in abstraction. Second, they consider relationships among people that are mediated by important places and ecosystem components. The relational values concept can be further enhanced, however, by including not only relationships among people and between people and the environment, but also relationships among different ecosystem components. Such ecological relationships go beyond bio-physical processes. I do not mean to evoke generic environmental interactions such as salmon needing cold water and therefore needing a forested watershed. This basic biophysical model is already captured in Chan and colleagues’ discussion of the “golden rule” in their policy application number four (i.e., care for your place may translate into care for someone else’s place if the two are ecologically connected). Rather, what I mean is that the values people place on connected ecosystem components are themselves interdependent.
This fuller picture of relational values is illustrated in how the Cree Canadian First Nations people manage their goose hunting. I was fortunate enough to spend several seasons living in the Cree community of Wemindji, in James Bay, Quebec, and to learned about goose hunting, an important subsistence and cultural activity (2). Hunting takes place in specific coastal marshes; but, prime locations change over time as the James Bay coast rises out of the Earth’s mantle having been depressed by the massive ice sheets that covered much of North America during the last glacial period (2, 3). The land is still rising to this very day, causing coastal marshes to dry up and new ones to form (2). Coastal marshes and prime goose habitats change rapidly, within the course of human lifetimes (4).
Cree hunters often invest significant amounts of energy to build soft infrastructure, such as mud dikes, to protect important marshes from drying up so that future generations can hunt (2, 4). Through intergenerational use, these marshes become imbued with history, culture, and identity and take on a value of their own (2). However, management decisions are influenced by ongoing environmental, social, and technological changes (2). Hunters may stop maintaining a marsh if, for example, geese change their flight paths and no longer visit an area (2). The marsh is still valued as an historic place that contributes to people’s identity (2).
The goose and the coastal marsh each have a value that is relational to specific Cree hunters, that cannot be reduced to one another or substituted, and that is interdependent. The relational values in Cree goose hunting involve social-social relationships (e.g., intergenerational use), social-ecological relationships (e.g., hunters valuing birds and certain marshes), and ecological-ecological relationships (e.g., spatial-temporal interactions between geese and marshes)[1] (Fig. 1). What we can learn from the Cree goose hunting example is how the values people place on certain ecosystem components are interdependent with values they have for other components.
Considering a wider array of social and ecological relationships helps flesh out the relational value concept. It can promote cross fertilization with other disciplines such as social network research, where social-ecological systems are conceptualized as networks with social-social, social-ecological, and ecological-ecological relations (6). Such collaborations will hopefully lead to theoretical and methodological advances that will help us achieve Chan and colleagues’ goal: a meaningful understanding of ecosystem services valuation that can better inform research and policy.
Figure 1. The values people place on certain ecosystem components are interdependent with values they have for other components. Valuation in Cree goose hunting involves social-social relationships (SS, e.g., intergenerational use), social-ecological relationships (SE, e.g., hunters valuing birds and certain marshes), and ecological-ecological relationships (EE, e.g., spatial-temporal interactions between geese and marshes). These relationships define a network of interdependent social and ecological units (red and green circles, respectively). Figure adapted from Bodin and Tengö (6).
Acknowledgments: I’d like to thank the CHANS lab for hosting my commentary and Kai Chan for editorial comments and advice.
Jesse Sayles is a postdoctoral fellow at the Climate Change Adaptation Research Group at McGill University. He does human-environment and sustainability research in costal and watershed systems. He is friends and colleagues with several CHANS lab members.
1.            Chan KM et al. (2016) Why protect nature? Rethinking values and the environment. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 113:1462–1465.
2.            Sayles JS, Mulrennan ME (2010) Securing a Future: Cree Hunters’ Resistance and Flexibility to Environmental Changes, Wemindji, James Bay. Ecol Soc 15:22.
3.            Pendea IF, Costopoulos A, Nielsen C, Chmura GL (2010) A new shoreline displacement model for the last 7 ka from eastern James Bay, Canada. Quat Res 73:474–484.
4.            Sayles JS (2015) No wilderness to plunder: Process thinking reveals Cree land-use via the goose-scape. Can Geogr / Le Géographe Can 59:297–303.
5.            Peloquin C, Berkes F (2009) Local knowledge, subsistence harvests, and social-ecological complexity in James Bay. Hum Ecol 37:533–545.
6.            Bodin Ö, Tengö M (2012) Disentangling intangible social–ecological systems. Glob Environ Chang 22:430–439.

Photo: Canada Geese flying in Wemindji.
Source: Cree Nation of Wemindji online gallery.

[1] While the coast is likely always to be important, a new set of ecosystem relationships may also be emerging. Hunters increasingly travel inland and hunt at roadside gravel pits due to a combination of social and ecological changes that affect where geese go and the amount of time people have for hunting (5). Thus, for some hunters, these roadside areas may take on a different value in the future than they have had in the past.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Perceptions are Evidence and Key to Conservation Success

ChansLab postdoc Nathan Bennett has just published a new paper in Conservation Biology, Using perceptions as evidence to improve conservation and environmental management.  He has blogged about it on his personal website here:

It is already creating a bit of a stir, check out his blog for the abstract or the article at the link below and weigh in!

Monday, November 9, 2015

Trophy Hunting: A bugbear (and moral test) for politicians

Grizzly bear sow and cubs, image courtesy of Andy Wright

Kai published an op-ed in the National Observer on trophy hunting for grizzly bears in B.C. In it he warns Premier Christy Clark that her stance on this issue risks tarring her with a moral stain, as many voters see this as an issue of appropriate vs. abhorrent relationships with nature, not a purely economic matter.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Once and Future World - a book review.

By Maayan Kreitzman

Our lab copy of the book

At the time that British Romantics invented the notion of wilderness as a spiritual sanctuary, the British landscape had already been transformed into docile parkland, and was starting to bear the violent marks of the industrial revolution. In the Once and Future World, J. B. McKinnon suggests that this is not a coincidence. Is romantic nature-loving only possible in a world that has already been transformed by humans through the eradication of species and changing of landscapes? I'd definitely never thought about that before. But now that I am, the ability to walk through the forest unarmed (unthinkable before the mass predator and megafauna extinctions caused by man) seems pretty necessary for the benign, loving, beautiful nature we relate to today, not to mention for the production of iconic works of nature-loving romanticism like “Tintern Abbey”. Wait then - were those extinctions a good thing?

In the Once and Future World, which I just finished reading, there are many examples of how humans have transformed wild nature. More interesting though, are the ways that humans have pretty much been ok with that. The book tells the story of how nature gets continuously subdued and redefined by man. How social collapse due to ecological change is relatively rare. What's more common, instead, is the adaptation of humans to progressively denuded states of nature.

As McKinnon writes, the world today is a ruin – a beautiful ruin, but a ruin nonetheless. By itself this sentence makes you expect yet another doom-and-gloom environmentalist manifesto, preaching about the past glories of nature and the destruction human societies have wreaked. But that's not what this book is about at all. Without context, you might think that living in a ruin is a bad thing – but as you slowly figure out, McKinnon doesn't actually see things this way. Take Europe – a continent-sized wasteland, or in other words, a pastoral paradise. It used to be a place infested with lions, wooly rhinoceros, and giant ground sloth. Now, it is a pleasant, relaxing, human-scale landscape, where nothing bigger than a lynx or wild boar is likely to harass you. Certainly, it is orders of magnitude less diverse, less wild, and less rich (in terms of collecting wild food off the land) than it used to be. But with other ways to feed ourselves, maybe nature (such as it is) is more enjoyable and more functional (from a human perspective) in the Europe of today than it ever could have been in wilder times. McKinnon clearly isn't on this side of the argument either. On the contrary, overall he makes a heartfelt plea in favor of a wilder world. At the same time, the alternative is valid too - from contemporary Europe to the Hawaiian islands, history shows that humans can thrive on a poorer, tamer world. But do we want to?

The Once and Future World is a more nuanced take on the concepts of conservation and rewilding than your typical rah-rah environmentalist nonfiction. McKinnon mines history and prehistory to track the correlations between events in human demography/migration with changes in wild plants and animals. This includes destruction, butchering, and collapse. But McKinnon also takes care in exploring the patterns of this destruction. For example, the pattern of “we ate the big ones first”, as well as the pattern of “unimaginable abundance to extinction”, everywhere in the world, over and over again. Yet there is also reciprocity, and apparent sustainability at certain times in history. And there is technology and ingenuity (from prehistory to the present), allowing humans to live very happily in an environment that is a ruin of its former self.

Compared to the abundance of life on this planet that existed, it is irrefutable that even what we think of as wilderness today is denuded - of megafauna (all over the world) and of the sheer amounts of everything else that has not gone extinct. The book explores the concept of shifting baselines in depth – that is, progressively reduced states of nature become the 'real' or 'normal' nature. Sometimes this happens so drastically that the return of an animal or community from the distant past is viewed as unnatural. The book tells fascinating histories of species, from grizzlies and foxes on the North American prairie, to giant turtles, sharks, and whales in the Southern Ocean. These natural histories open up the imagination to the abundance of life that existed and perhaps could exist, yet are so far outside of our current frame of reference. The stories of grizzlies (which used to be a plains animal, now thought of as a remote mountain animal), whales (formerly huge carbon sinks and ecosystem engineers that fertilized the entire ocean with iron), and sharks (in really thriving reef ecosystems, they compose 75% of reef biomass), stunningly reveal baselines that have shifted so massively that we need active acts of imagination to shift them in reverse.

Yet this book isn't an outright depressing read at all. Humans aren't anachronistic opposites to nature for McKinnon. Rather, we can choose to want to live in a wilder world - wilder internally and wilder externally. What does internal wildness mean exactly? It might start from seeking to pay attention to the feeling that when you go outside, you are not exactly safe. It might be to engage the alertness of all your senses, and know, that like other creatures on this planet, you could die. On the more practical side, McKinnon only scratches the surface of the questions of feeding and maintaining 7 (not to mention 10) billion people in a wilder world. But quantitative forecasting or playing with numbers isn't the point of this book. Its strength is psychological, reflective - it argues a nuanced point that isn't so easy to grasp: that we can thrive on this planet and still desire a wilder world where other species do too. That rewilding and conservation aren't self-abnegating, all-or-nothing, futile aspirations to go backwards. Rather, they can be a contemporary way forward for humans to thrive with wild and abundant nature, made up of both dangerous and pastoral landscapes, and inhabited by many creatures, both deadly and docile.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

What can conservation learn from fashion marketing?

By Alejandra Echeverri and Andrea Echeverri

For those of us who are concerned about the environment, our minds spin all day thinking: how can we make life better for the diversity of human and non-human life on this planet? And by that we mean, how do we make people use less water, buy less stuff, take public transit rather than drive, donate more money to conservation of endangered species, etc.?

This is still a challenge for those of us who work in conservation and this is why people like me (Alejandra) do what we do, because we believe that the world would be a better place if we could address those questions better. But for those of us who work in fashion marketing, like me (Andrea), getting people to care about fashion is the easiest part. The challenge is to innovate and re-launch products that have short life spans so that they seduce costumers each time while providing continual profits.

Innovation is required in the fashion industry and conservation. Firstly, conservation campaigns need to get the attention of broader audiences, not only the attention of those who already care. Campaigns should induce attitude changes toward the environment and hopefully induce behavior changes. Tree-hugging-style campaigns (that are currently massively communicated) are not sufficient, because they portray an image that is not representative of most people, appealing only to a subset (generally, upper middle class, often white and already left-leaning). Secondly, fashion-marketing campaigns need to be innovative in multiple ways: by designing and manufacturing new products (product innovation), re-branding to meet consumer expectations, and re-shaping consumer experience (from the in-store experience to online shopping experience).

Here we compare a few examples of what usually constitutes a “good conservation campaign” and a “good fashion campaign”:


  • Evoke positive emotions: Use popular, charismatic species such as elephants, tigers, and pandas that serve as symbols to stimulate conservation awareness. This generates emotional responses (see tiger picture).
  • Evoke negative emotions: By inducing fear, sadness, and amplifying the risks, people will think twice about their actions. Sometimes negative frames are more persuasive than positive frames (Example: “animals are not clowns” shown in picture).
  • Send a simple message that calls for a single and doable action: For example: “Turn off the lights! It all adds up!”
  • Be smart about peer pressure: Try to reinforce norms that people in the audience are already following: like recycling being perceived as a good thing to do.

Wildlife trust of India and Hard Rock Café campaign to save tigers.

Acçāo Animal and Liga Portuguesa dos Direitos campaign raising awareness on using animals in circuses

  • Understand the demographics of your potential costumers: Understanding the gender, age, race, location, income, etc. of potential costumers is crucial for orienting campaigns to specific groups (see Rihanna's picture). 
  • Seduce costumers:  In fashion marketing we need to get costumers to want to look like or “be like” the person we are showing. A good way to think about this is to imagine the customer and think: who is this person? What does this person like? After knowing this, the campaign should accentuate the attributes that are most important to this customer. For example, if we were trying to sell toys for kids that are purchased by parents, we would have to entice two kinds of costumers: the kids and the parents. We could do this by making sure that the product fits with what kids like (e.g., shape, colors), but we need to make sure that the product fits with what parents care about (e.g., safety concerns, price). Campaigns need to accentuate both.
  • Use icons to validate the products: Let’s say we are selling sports equipment. Sales will increase if a famous sports icon shows that he (or she) is using such equipment. Just like Lionel Messi validating Adidas’ soccer cleats after he was named the best soccer player in the world in 2010 (see Messi's picture).
  • Think seasonally: Marketing products seasonally is one of the big keys in fashion marketing. First, it allows for a turnover, but second it is tuned to peoples’ current needs. For example, advertising sandals during the summer makes a lot more sense than advertising them during the winter. 

Rihanna for Dior 2015 "Secret garden campaign" conveying a sense of mystery and strength (crowd: strong and powerful women >30 yrs-old).

Messi for Adidas

We each came up with four topics that matter for different kinds of campaigns, but we both agree that our lists are not exhaustive and could have more information. Nevertheless, our lists are long enough to illustrate our point: We think very differently about what constitutes a good campaign.

Now, the interesting questions are: Who is doing a better job? Who is getting more attention? Conservation campaigns or fashion campaigns? It is not an easy question to answer, but if we look at the top 25 most popular magazines in the U.S. last year as an indicator of consumerism and success of campaigning and advertising, we find that only one magazine talks about nature (national geographic magazine), and six are fashion magazines. 

So….what can conservation learn from fashion marketing?

  • We should recognize that there are different kinds of audiences with different needs and expectations. Advertising professionals call this market segmentation. Conservation must study those different audiences and target campaigns to each one of them. We think they currently target a very broad audience, and campaigns are not really connecting with everyone. Some try to be more targeted (like LEAF program) but for the most part they are too broad. 
  • Conservation campaigns should appeal to self-esteem and self-actualization needs. This means campaigns should be directed so people feel like they can get attention and recognition from others by behaving in certain way (like not wearing fur in the following picture). People should feel like they are capable of improving themselves and reaching a fuller potential. This is only possible if positive images are shown.

Charlize Theron for Peta raising awareness on fur by sending a positive message

  • We should identify "conservation-icons" and use them to validate people’s engagement in pro-environmental behaviors, as well as to inspire other people to act in different ways. We could also use current fashion icons to leverage conservation campaigns as long as they are interested and capable of discussing sustainability issues.

Dr. Wallace J. Nichols modeling for Nautica

Dr. Wallace J. Nichols raising awareness on ocean conservation

Dr. Wallace J. Nichols is a marine biologist and a Research Associate, at the California Academy of Sciences who is a conservation icon and a fashion icon

Maybe if we start applying some of the fashion marketing principles in conservation, we can get more people to care for the environment. In a time where environmental attitude change is urgent, we imagine the potential benefits of implementing some of these ideas -- they just might work!

Alejandra is a PhD student in Resource Management and Environmental Studies at UBC, and Andrea works as a marketing coordinator for AVON Colombia.