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I begin with a depressing observation. Although conservation has made important progress in the last several decades there is little question about the overarching trend: biodiversity loss and ecosystem decline remain dominant. To change this situation will require the mobilization of important sectors of society that have up to now not acted on behalf of conservation.

Conservation biologists have an important role to play in this process of mobilization. Recent polling data and other research continue to show that in North America scientists enjoy a high degree of credibility with many audiences. Other proponents of conservation—such as activists—lack this credibility, in part because of the sustained campaign by extractive industries against the conservation movement. For this reason and others, scientists need to play a significant role in reaching out to, and mobilizing, key constituencies.

Mobilization—the process by which people come to devote their time, money, skills, and other resources to collective political action—has many aspects. These include identifying important audiences, understanding what moves them, developing a strategy, and figuring out what one should do, and when, to achieve policy goals. Here I focus on one element: speaking effectively to the audiences that must be mobilized and the tools available to do so. Although my examples are North American, the principles are broadly general.

Too often ecologists, biologists, and those from related disciplines fail to recognize that the audiences they need to communicate with are quite different from themselves and from each other. The result is that scientists talk to others as if they were talking to themselves, and little is accomplished. Conservation biologists need to remember that most of the people we need to mobilize are:

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    not scientists,
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    not always well educated,
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    often not interested in politics, and
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    concerned about conservation but not as a top priority.

Moreover, most people do not read. Some sobering statistics, with a North American emphasis: 80% of Americans say they get their “news” from television. Less than 30% read a newspaper daily. Those Americans who do read newspapers are not reading the New York Times or Washington Post, let alone the Guardian or Globe and Mail. They are reading USA Today and local papers that feature headlines about traffic accidents, scandal, and the “war on terror.” According to recent polls by Gallup and ABC, 61% of Americans believe Genesis is literally true and say that religion is very important in their lives. The numbers are 28% for Canadians and 17% for the British. We must understand these trends if we are to mobilize people.

To protect the natural world, to heal the many wounds we have inflicted as a species, we must catalyze mass political action. People must act politically to bring the pressure needed to change policies. And, they must act personally in ways that are at least benign toward nature, if not healing. Fortunately there is little magic and mystery in understanding what causes people to act. People act based on emotion, need states, and values linked to the sacred and a sense of efficacy.

Emotion and motivate come from the same root—to move. We need only reflect on ourselves as conservation biologists to realize the power of emotion. We feel love for nature. We fear that we are losing it. We are angry with those destroying it. Our emotions are what connect us to the world; they are our primary means of adapting to it. To be effective we must arouse strong emotion in others; information and facts alone cannot do that.

Even when we aim at emotion we frequently forget that many of those we need to mobilize are not moved by what moves us. We all possess the same emotions (within a range of variation), but they are aroused by different things. We need to understand what arouses people and then touch that. Some years ago, in an effort to halt the decimation of parrots by smugglers in the Caribbean, conservationists tried a new approach. Instead of appealing for the protection of the birds based on love or respect for nature per se, they appealed to nationalism and patriotism. Arguments that capturing and selling parrots to rich countries was a betrayal of one's national heritage and perpetuated neocolonial relationships achieved results.

Need states are also powerful motivators. We need healthy food, clean water and air; we need to belong, to be valued, to love and be loved, to be creative, to believe in something bigger than ourselves. We need the wild. One of the problems with need states is that they are easily co-opted or deformed, or we are distracted from them and settle instead for socially approved compensations. We do not belong, so we shop. We lack love, so we seek power and control. Conservationists must become better at penetrating these deformations and compensatory distractions and tap into genuine needs. When we do, we will unlock tremendous energy, as other social movements have demonstrated in the past. It will not be easy. People are often afraid of the needs they have buried or ignored, and they are afraid of change. Thomas Jefferson wrote in the U.S. Declaration of Independence that we often tolerate the oppressive because it is familiar. But not indefinitely.

Values are powerful motivators, notwithstanding the findings of neurobiologists such as Antonio Damasio, who say that about 95% of our emotional and cognitive processing is not conscious. Not unconscious in the sense of that which is repressed, but nonconscious as when excessive heat causes us to sweat or eating causes us to generate insulin. We have a need to explain the world to ourselves and to believe our explanation is correct and proper. That is morality. We invest much emotion in our values and understanding of the world. At the root of our sense of propriety and values are basic, unquestioned (and often untestable) assumptions. These constitute our sense of the sacred.

Thus, if people hold Genesis to be literally true it does little good to argue to them that they should protect nature to protect the theater of evolution. We must speak in a language that people understand (e.g., creation is good according to the creator). This is not a call to misrepresent our values or to give the impression we necessarily share the audience's understanding of the world. It is a call, instead, to recognize we have common goals, notwithstanding differences in how we understand the world. We must remember that what is important is to protect nature; the reasons people protect nature are secondary at best.

Tapping into a sense of the sacred is not enough. To act, people also require a sense of efficacy. We cannot create this, but we can reinforce it by what we say and do.

How do we touch people at the level of emotion, need states, and values? There are long-term strategies like making sure children get into the woods, but I want to focus on the nearer term. We have three primary tools to evoke the link between conservation and emotion, needs, and values: story, ritual, and organization. Not all scientists will be comfortable with using all of these tools, but it is important to understand them.

We are storytellers in our very souls. We understand the world through story. We place our lives in the context of story. We enjoy stories. Many conservationists are master storytellers. But we need to do more of it. And we need to develop stories that resonate with the audiences we are trying to reach. Talking to ourselves is important in maintaining our own sense of identity, but we need to talk to all those others whose support is vital to conservation success.

Our stories need to find their way into film and music and other performance media. This is the only way to reach the many who do not read or attend talks. Almost everyone listens to the radio and watches television or rents videos. Millions still go to the movies and attend concerts.

We must become much better at using ritual and inventing new rituals. Among ourselves we engage in ritual, but probably not enough. We have dinners and give awards. Many aspects of the conferences we hold are ritualistic: the pep-talk keynotes, the obligatory slides accompanying talks, poster sessions, the breaks for networking. These involve substance, but many of their elements are constituted by patterned behavior that codifies invariant meaning, helping establish our collective identity and promoting bonding. It's true we rarely dance ourselves into a trance state, but we sometimes approach that during late-night drinking sessions.

We come up short in using existing rituals or in fashioning new, mass-based rituals that will attract others to the conservation movement. Ritual is important for two reasons. First, ritual involves a public performance. What people proclaim publicly obligates them more strongly than a private pledge. Second, ritual is collective. When people act together to proclaim a belief or in support of a cause it creates a bond and people are more likely to act again together. Collective action can generate tremendous energy. When the U.S. Declaration of Independence was published in newspapers the general response was tepid. When the Declaration was read publicly and followed by burning King George in effigy, the crowds were moved to action.

Finally, we need to use and create organizational structures that provide a home for people's ongoing involvement with conservation. Too often we excite people without giving them anything to do. Following an inspiring talk those in the audience invariably ask: What can we do? Our answers are too frequently vague and uninspiring. Soon people lose interest in our vision. To ensure that people will act when we truly need them, we need to keep them involved continuously in work and play. Involvement need not always result in some accomplishment. It may simply help people bond with each other and with the organization. These bonds sustain involvement. Mutual support is critical to action. In short, organization fixes the level of motivation.

Understanding ecosystems and other species will not be enough to protect them. We need to better understand our own species, what moves us, and how to harness what moves us in the service of conservation. Such understanding will not work magic, but it is indispensable to success.