Biodiversity is on the decline globally. This is the case despite various institutional designs following the RIO 1992 summit. On a Brundtlandian pathway, the Rio+20 meeting rearticulated the concern and hoped that we [the representatives of the States] “with the full participation of civil society, renew our commitment to sustainable development and to ensuring the promotion of an economically, socially and environmentally sustainable future for our planet and for present and future.” In twenty years, the focus has shifted to the critical role of civil society in attaining sustainable development. It is not only formal institution-building that matters.
The principles and spirits of international treaties, such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the Bern Convention, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and, in Europe, the Habitats Directive as well, set the basis for national conservation legislation. In Finland, as well as in other parts of Europe, national biodiversity strategies and biodiversity action plans have recently been undergoing renewal. Governments around the globe are taking various steps to handle the challenge of biodiversity. How much do biodiversity or ecosystem services really weigh?
The work of the Intergovernmental Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) began in 2012 with high expectations. It is hoped that IPBES will prove as meaningful on the biodiversity front as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has become on the climate front. This may of course become the case. As national work is about to begin, one important aspect has come to the fore, at least in Finland. Governmental resources for the IPBES are miniscule. At the first IPBES stakeholder meeting, held in November 2013, it became evident that the majority of the work will build upon voluntary action by scientists and administrators. Some participants stated that the lack of financial resources will handicap the process. But not all shared that opinion.
One environmental economist stood up and claimed that, the situation being as it is, we - as scientists and administrators - must act voluntarily, become committed to the task of the good cause without asking for payment for our time and effort. She hit the nail on the head.
Recall all of the fine institutional arrangements erected for the sake of protecting biodiversity – and the problems still prevail. The true challenge is, then, not the institutional scaffolding as such but the motivation that these scaffolds prevent or enable. It seems to be the case that biodiversity laws, policies and instruments do not motivate people to act for nature. Indeed, institutions have been erected to prevent us from doing wrong (to biodiversity and people) but they have not been designed to help us to do good. Prohibitions do not motivate action the same way as, say, encouragement.
Nonetheless, people do exist who act for biodiversity. How do they do it? Why do they do it?
This is exactly what the BIOMOT project (MOTivational strength of ecosystem services and alternative ways to express the value of BIOdiversity) is addressing in 2011–2015. The BIOMOT project, funded by the EU’s FP7 programme, collects together partners from seven European countries, comprising eight partner universities. The project is employing a variety of scientific disciplines, such as economics, philosophy, governance studies and social psychology. The interdisciplinary work will explore (i) the current state of environmental valuation and actual and potential alternatives to mainstream approaches; (ii) the features of those biodiversity policies, instruments and initiatives that motivate people to act; (iii) the personal and social characteristics of the innovators of such schemes; and (iv) the building blocks of the alternative theory of motivation. When the project concludes, it might be possible to gain a robust insight how these “successful” schemes have broken old habits and routines and helped to form new ones that motivate people to act for nature.
It is, indeed, one task to figure out the causes and reasons for inactivity, i.e. why people do not act for nature. The other task is to figure out why people act purposefully against nature. This is the wicked case with the protection of some specimens of biodiversity, say, the wolf (Canis lupus).
In Finland, the government has been committed to erecting institutional scaffolds to protect the wolf, but this has actually had the opposite effect: despite the efforts, the size of the wolf population has been in a steady decline for nearly all of the past ten years. The Finnish wolf policy is a showcase in institutional design, the purpose of which is to prevent people from doing wrong, i.e. killing wolves illegally. The government has, for instance, introduced a category of severe hunting crime to the criminal code and multiplied the nominal values of large carnivores. The approach has not been a solution to a problem. Perhaps it is one of its key causes. The top-down regulation of the wolf issues faces strong and persistent resistance, and at the same time the ex ante and ex post damage compensation schemes and ever more accurate information about the numbers and origins of wolves are not really helping the people to live with the wolves.
The question is: which kinds of instruments or policies would motivate people to live with the wolves? This is not a matter of preventing people from doing wrong, but actively helping them to do something which is good for both themselves and the broader society. This concern does not only apply in Finland. Large carnivores are also returning to their native territories and habitats after decades of absence in other parts of Europe.
Perhaps the wolf policy would need workable “nudges” to make co-existence easier. According to Cass Sunstein (2013, Simpler: the future of government, p. 38), “nudges are approaches that influence decisions while preserving the freedom of choice”. Thinking around nudges offers a way to look beyond regulation, compensation and information and focus on how to design perhaps only slightly modified choice architectures that may have large effects on outcomes, i.e. how people come to terms with the presence of the wolf. The wolf-related nudges alter the shared environment of the wolf and humans. For instance, feeding areas for white-tailed deer may be located a bit further away from the vicinity of houses (so that they do not draw wolves close to humans) or sheep pastures that are located close to wolves’ ecological routes may be relocated (in order to lower the risk). These kinds of social-ecological nudges preserve freedom of choice but may subtly break the old habits of feeling, mind and action and help to form new ones.
In order to halt biodiversity decline, the challenge lies in understanding the anatomy of motivation, how motivation is related to habits, and how nudges and policy instruments can help to change problematic behavioural patterns without diminishing the degree of freedom and curtailing the basic rights of citizens, consumers and other species.
Juha Hiedanpää, ESEE (European Society for Ecological Economics), Newsletter, Winter 2013.