Today’s conservation challenges are unlike any in human history. With so many people on Earth, there is no way to disassociate the environment from our everyday behavior. Turning on our lights in Virginia is directly linked to mountaintop coal mining in West Virginia. The antibiotics we use end up in our water supplies, further spreading antibiotic resistance.
The most challenging of environmental questions are therefore behavioral. How, we ask, can we get people to minimize waste, water usage, or fossil fuel consumption? How do we stop people from buying rhino horn, tiger parts, or—less pernicious but equally destructive—unsustainably caught fish?
The good news is that we humans are getting better at boosting knowledge, shifting attitudes, and changing behaviors to effect positive change. But the time has come to evaluate what has worked—and what hasn’t—when it comes to behavior change. That means examining past campaigns and the best social science, and then replicating these “bright spots” to amplify success.
In 1971, the nonprofit Keep America Beautiful ran the now-famous “Crying Indian” ad, featuring an American Indian shedding a tear as careless motorists threw trash from a passing car. This was part of a trend of similar campaigns, including Smokey the Bear helping the US Forest Service prevent wildfires and the 1990s “Don’t Mess with Texas” campaign to reduce litter across the Lone Star state.
Roadside trash may seem like a quaint environmental concern today, and it’s hard to imagine a single TV commercial making much impact. But those early campaigns did drive behavior change, and they employed two important motivations for doing so: identity and pride. The “Crying Indian” and “Don’t Mess with Texas” campaigns recognized that self-perception strongly influences the actions people take. “I’m Texan, and Texans defend their state—so I won’t mess with Texas.” That’s powerful. Another simple example is plastic shopping bags; People are now proud rather than embarrassed to carry their reusable bags into the grocery store. Identity and pride are powerful motivators for change.
A considerable volume of social science supports this, including research by Peter Vaughan and Everett Rogers on behavior change, and Vanessa Patrick, HaeEun Helen Chun, and Deborah Macinnis on pride versus shame as an incentive. Behavior change efforts aimed at everything from smoking cessation to seat belt use have leveraged identity and pride to persuade people to avoid bad behaviors and embrace good ones.
Rare has brought a great deal of this insight to bear on the global environmental challenges of today. Over the last 25 years, our organization has led more than 300 behavior-focused campaigns in 56 countries across the globe, built on a pride-focused theory of change and data-driven analysis to track results. We work with our partners to educate communities about the problems facing their local ecosystems while leveraging local pride to drive the adoption of behaviors that address them.
The method is relatively simple. Rare trains local conservationists to use social science and commercial marketing as tools to identify target audiences, understand barriers to new behaviors, and tailor a plan to boost adoption of more-sustainable practices. For good reason, we call these efforts Rare Pride campaigns.
A recent project in the Philippines illustrates this well. From 2012-2014, Rare worked with 12 coastal communities in the Philippines to increase wild fish populations by boosting community support for marine-protected areas. Well-enforced marine-protected areas enable fish populations to grow and spillover into adjacent fishing areas. The problem in these communities was behavioral: No one followed the rules, and overfishing—even in the protected areas—led to dwindling food supplies for people who depend on fish for protein.
Rare trained a dozen local leaders to design and run Rare Pride campaigns in each of these 12 municipalities. By bringing together the logic of fish recovery and the power of pride—pride of place, pride in community, pride in tradition—these local leaders created campaigns that inspired local fishermen to renew their identity as ocean stewards and increase respect for the marine-protected areas.
Pre- and post campaign survey results showed that there was a 17 percentage-point increase on average in communication within the community about sustainable fishing and its benefits—with just a little over a year of active campaigning. More importantly, the biomass (or total volume) of fish populations inside the marine-protected areas increased by 52 percent on average across these 12 sites. Local fishermen now have another reason to be proud: They are restoring their own fishery.
Conservation is about people. Conservation success depends on our ability to help people embrace new habits—not just because old ones threaten their way of life, but also because adopting new behaviors will lead to a better one.
My optimism springs from two sources. First, Rare is not alone in promoting behavior change to address pressing social and environmental challenges. Other organizations are launching a growing array of identity-focused campaigns across the globe, addressing issues as diverse as shark finning, home energy use, childhood obesity, and drunk driving. Second, the one thing we can be sure about is humans’ ability to change. We are nothing if not adaptable.