Lucy McRobert: emotivate!


What matters more: the demise of one Golden Eagle or the loss of more than half our wildlife in the UK?

Last year, the State of Nature partnership reported that 56 per cent of species in Britain were in decline. We regularly hear that we have lost 97 per cent of our wildflower meadows; that global wildlife populations have fallen by more than half in the last 40 years; and that Nightingales declined by 53 per cent between 1995 and 2008. These statistics are huge and terrifying. 

They’re also meaningless. If the point of such numbers is to shock us into action or to convey huge emotive messages, they fail on almost every count. 

Of all the money regularly given to charity, just 2 per cent finds its way into the environmental conservation sector. Compare that to the 8 per cent that goes into animal charities and the 13 per cent that goes to children’s charities. In short, nature charities in the UK are propping up the vast majority of our wildlife with a relatively tiny amount of income, and even then it’s still declining! 

The professional conservation sector prides itself on its scientific credibility. As a movement, we’re deeply uncomfortable with the idea of dramatising, sensationalising or ‘sexing up’ our work. Every policy, every report, every communication has to be based on evidence, and god forbid we play the cute and cuddly card. When talking to businesses or politicians this makes sense, but when talking to the general public it’s emotion, not evidence, that spurs them into action.

The loss of a single Golden Eagle could be much more effective than the decline of half of our wildlife when it comes to motivating the public. Photo: Jari Peltomäki

What’s in a name?
When I worked at the Rutland Osprey Project, I was forever caught in an uneasy middle ground about giving the birds names. A couple had nicknames, but the majority were referred to by their ring numbers. This worked well for the already converted, but new audiences found this approach cold and impersonal. The BBC doesn’t shy away from it (it’s becoming a bit of a ‘thing’ on Springwatch), but it’s regularly chastised by us ‘proper’ wildlife-watchers for doing so. Remember Skye and Frisa the White-tailed Eagles? We roll our eyes in disdain and cluck disapprovingly; as a sector, we find it a bit dirty to turn wildlife into celebrities and we’re much too worthy to be caught up in such nonsense. 

There’s a reason why animal and kids’ charities receive so much support: they’re not afraid to tug at our heartstrings. They take their causes right down to the individual: a single child looking lost or hungry; a single over-worked donkey; a single homeless dog. In our heads, we can create a story around this and see how our £3 a month will help that child, donkey or dog. Research suggests that adding one more individual to the narrative doesn’t increase the emotional affect – it diminishes it. The higher the statistics go, the more disconnected we become and eventually we switch off all together. 

This phenomenon is what researchers call ‘psychic numbing’ (with Paul Slovic at the University of Oregon leading the way), and it’s something that nature conservationists have got to wise up to. I’m not suggesting we start giving our garden birds cute nicknames, but we have to stop relying on those huge numbers and start worrying about a single Robin in the back garden. And in that respect, the loss of one Golden Eagle could be more powerful than the 56 per cent decline of species in the UK.