polar bear with its head in the ground
The theme of Earth Day 2019 is "Protect Our Species". Photo by Jacqueline Godany
Insight

What’s in it for me? Garnering public support for environmental efforts

An expert on climate change and natural resource management, Simon Mercer talks about the importance of awareness-raising events like Earth Day in harnessing positive momentum and co-opting local populations into conservation interventions

The first Earth Day was held on 22nd April 1970, when millions of people took to the streets in the US to protest against the widespread environmental degradation resulting from rapid unchecked industrialisation and growth. Held every year since, Earth Day has become a global event celebrated by around 1 billion people in 192 countries across the world and is the largest civic-focused day of action on the planet.

The focus of Earth Day 2019 is ‘Protect our Species’ in recognition of the unprecedented global destruction and degradation of plant and wildlife populations that are directly driven by human activity. Recent research has highlighted the severity of this challenge, reaffirming the growing body of evidence that current rates of species loss and extinction reflect an ongoing sixth mass extinction on Earth, a period of “biological annihilation”. The impacts of such significant biodiversity loss on humans are potentially catastrophic, but as yet the scale of our response is dwarfed by the scale of the challenge.

In addition to Earth Day, recent years have seen a proliferation of international awareness events – Earth Hour, World Environment Day, World Wildlife Day – to name but a few. But what do these events actually achieve in addressing this pressing challenge, and has anything really changed since 1970 and the founding of ‘the World’s largest environmental movement?’

Raising awareness and recognising our role

Whilst such events might not bring about the rapid and far reaching change that many of us feel is needed to halt and reverse widespread environmental destruction, they have a potentially vital role to play in raising public awareness of the urgency of the environmental challenge. They also act as useful means of highlighting practical steps people can take to reduce their own environmental impact and support the effective conservation of the vital biodiversity that sustains our planet. Such public movements force us to reflect on our actions and consider what we can do to support this change.

For the last four years, my work at LTS has centred on the delivery of the Darwin Initiative, the UK Government’s flagship programme supporting biodiversity conservation projects in developing countries around the world (previously featured on the NIRAS website). In this role, I have been fortunate enough to support the delivery of hundreds of conservation projects in a broad range of contexts. Whilst each of these projects is different, operating in diverse geographies and focused on a multitude of challenges, having a view of the whole portfolio of projects—what they have achieved and how—has left me feeling positive. Despite the level of complexity involved in addressing the conservation challenge, I am confident concrete outcomes can be achieved (see Twitter #conservationoptimism). Events such as Earth Day can have a role to play in this.

Two endangered brown monkeys. Photo by Lewis Roberts

The importance of humans to effective conservation

Over the last 20 years there has been a growing recognition that human wellbeing is central to the effectiveness of conservation interventions. Whilst now this seems self-evident, traditional approaches to conservation focused heavily on fortress and fines approaches to conservation, believing that effective conservation could only be achieved through the absolute and permanent separation of people from nature.

There is now a recognition that to achieve successful conservation, approaches are needed which balance local rights with global environmental aims. Effective long-term conservation can only be achieved with the cooperation and support of local people and will only be possible where conservation provides benefits for local populations.

This broad approach is a cornerstone of all successful Darwin projects, but is equally relevant in a developed country context.

Events such as Earth Day can play a pivotal role in broadening support for conservation aims across the world, resulting in positive action from the local to the international scales. 

Simon Mercer, senior consultant at LTS, part of the NIRAS Group,

The importance of learning and adapting

A common trait of the most effective Darwin Initiative projects is their focus on learning to inform adaptive management. Working in complex social ecological systems to deliver successful conservation outcomes is incredibly challenging. The unpredictability of human and natural system responses to conservation interventions, increases the importance of ensuring that learning from project delivery is captured and fed back in to improve implementation.   

On a global scale, annual international awareness events provide a great opportunity to highlight the latest learning and thinking in specific technical areas in a way that is easily accessible to the general public. Last year’s Earth Day, for example, focused on ending plastic pollution, helping to catapult this issue into the public consciousness and rapidly raise awareness of the widespread environmental impact of plastic waste, particularly in marine environments. 

Photo by Filip Zrnzević

The need for effective communications

A common theme of these traits of effective conservation interventions is the importance of communications. This was not something I had anticipated when I began working on Darwin. However, the value of communications as a tool for awareness raising and a mechanism for sharing learning and, ultimately, encouraging local action and precipitating policy change, is significant.   

Whilst there is still clearly much to be done, events such as Earth Day have an important role to play as one means of widening public support for environmental action. Recent youth-led climate protests in towns and cities worldwide, and the high-profile climate extinction movement seem indicative of a groundswell of support for conservation and environmental goals. Global events such as Earth Day have a potential role in harnessing this positive momentum in a productive way, focusing it towards more practical action for positive change.

Public pressure in turn encourages new and continued government support for programmes such as the Darwin Initiative which is now in its 26th year. Although small in size when viewed against the enormity of the problem, such initiatives have the potential to realise significant conservation gains across the world.

Despite the scale and complexity of the environmental challenges we face, through programmes such as the Darwin Initiative, and awareness raising events such as Earth Day, there are plenty of reasons to remain optimistic for the future of our planet and the variety of all life that it supports.