December 06, 2005

What Lenin can teach environmentalists

This is Lenin in "Left wing communism: an infantile disorder":
It is far more difficult — and far more precious — to be a revolutionary when the conditions for direct, open, really mass and really revolutionary struggle do not yet exist, to be able to champion the interests of the revolution (by propaganda, agitation and organisation) in non-revolutionary bodies, and quite often in downright reactionary bodies, in a non-revolutionary situation, among the masses who are incapable of immediately appreciating the need for revolutionary methods of action.
This is David Johns in "The other connectivity: reaching beyond the choir" (Conservation Biology, subscription required):
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. [...]

[S]cientists need to play a significant role in reaching out to, and mobilizing, key constituencies. [...] To protect the natural world, to heal the many wounds we have inflicted as a species, we must catalyze mass political action. [...]

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.
This reminded me of nationalism and religion. And indeed...
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.

[I]f 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). [...] We must remember that what is important is to protect nature; the reasons people protect nature are secondary at best.
According to Johns, "we need" (he uses the word "need" 28 times and "must" 10 times in two pages of text) story, ritual, and organization:
We have three primary tools to evoke the link between conservation and emotion, needs, and values: story, ritual, and organization. [...]

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. [...]

We come up short in using existing rituals or in fashioning new, mass-based rituals that will attract others to the conservation movement. [...] 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. [...] 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.
In short: "we need" to spread "propaganda, agitation and organisation" in the service of conservation.


  1. Most people do not think, they feel. Burning a straw dummy of the King will work everytime. If we are serious about saving the planet's biodiversity, we need to tap into those feelings. If patriotic furver saves parrots, so be it. Of course, someone could come along and insist that destroying parrots is patrotic (a double edged sword).

  2. That is the case of whale hunting in Norway. For many Norwegians killing whales is a question of patriotic pride.

    The big problem of advocating the use of strong emotions for political purposes is that it paves the way for murderous irrationality. Witness Hugo Chávez and Robert Mugabe, not to mention the great tyrants of the 20th century, many of which were democratically elected.