Wednesday, April 29, 2009

marketing environmentalism

It's been years since I watched nature and science documentaries like Nova, but my ecologist friend has gotten me hooked on BBC's "Planet Earth" 11 part series. I've never seen such amazing nature footage in my life; I suspect they took the best shots of every nature video ever produced and condensed them into a few episodes. The first few are available on youtube; the rest can be tracked down elsewhere on the web or I can give you a copy.

In any case, this got me thinking about the marketing aspect of environmentalism. I, and most other humans, am hardwired to respond with the "omg look how cute" instinct at the clumsy wide-eyed leopard cubs. And hardwired to shudder at buckets of writhing eels. It's no wonder so many resources and so much publicity is devoted to the plight of large furry mammals, and none to kelp, even if many un-cuddly species are vastly more crucial links in the food chain than panda bears.

The dilemma is, how do we harness these emotions in favor of the goodwill of nature, without making things worse via insidious unintended consequences? I think clearly the instinct should be used to garner interest more than donations: baby polar bears get people interested in seal populations which get people interested in the breakup of the ice caps, and now you have relatively more educated activists calling for climate change legislation rather than an expedition of scientists to rescue a few specimens and breed them in captivity. And if you don't want to wait for smarter people to come around, just use the large mammals as poster children for fundamental conservation efforts, not as direct objects of focus.

As Lawrence Lessig says "Never underestimate the power of naivete in launching critical political reform." I love his enthusiasm and agree in principle but the case of environmentalism demonstrates just how incredibly careful you have to be with unintended consequences when naivete is the foundation of your movement.