Some Public Misperceptions

That a deficit in knowledge leads to ambivalence or ill-advised conclusions and actions is clearly evident in the case of biodiversity conservation. An immediate obstacle, one noted from the outset (Biodiversity Project, 1998), is the use of the word biodiversity itself, hardly a word of common parlance. Surely biodiversity does not have the immediate recognition of phrases denoting other environmental aspirations, for example, ''pure water'' or ''clean air.'' Even when one moves closer to its real meaning, the word biodiversity suggests only that there is a great variety of life forms; it does not lead one to recognize the interconnectedness of these forms in ecosystems. At the very least, the word requires vigilant and repeated explanation when communicating with the public, and this is a disadvantage in an age when metaphors and sound bites carry so much weight (Lakoff and Johnson, 1980; Lakoff, 2002).

Even if people have grasped the meaning of biodiversity, they are often unfamiliar with the meaning and significance of biodiversity loss. There is a persistent widespread misperception, for example, that what we are witnessing is merely the current wave of extinctions that are part of the normal turnover in the history of life (American Museum of Natural History, 1998). In other words, life on the planet has experienced myriad extinction events over billions of years, and it will continue to thrive, offering new opportunities for new better-adapted species. (Ironically, those who accept this pattern of life's constant turmoil often comfort themselves by exempting humans.) Indeed, the difference between mass extinction vs. background extinction rates is not one that has been readily absorbed by a

302 / Michael J. Novacek large segment of the public (American Museum of Natural History, 1998). In addition, there is a tendency to place greater value on the more familiar and charismatic in nature rather than recognizing the integral roles and importance of all species, even insects, worms, fungi, and microbes, in various ecosystems (Wilson, 1992; Novacek, 2007).

Both of these misperceptions clearly impede the cultivation of a sense of concern and stewardship for the planet's eroding biodiversity. The notion that current rates of extinction are ''normal'' obviously prevents a focus on the urgency of the problem. Indeed, this perspective has fed an attitude, often expressed in the political arena, that action is unwarranted for something that, according to scientists, is no problem at all. A lack of appreciation for the richness and interconnectedness of diverse species, from elephants to soil bacteria, yields a distorted picture of what is really at risk. With such a narrow vision, even conservation efforts may place too much attention on a few endangered species rather than the ravaged habitats within which they live.

Evidence of Positive Public Response

However, there is also evidence the public is prepared and motivated to understand the biodiversity crisis more accurately and profoundly. Since the mid-1990s, several surveys have monitored public attitudes on biodiversity loss and biodiversity conservation. Prominent among these were the polls of Americans in 1996 and 2002 conducted by the Biodiversity Project (1996, 2002). Respondents in both polling years showed a high level of concern for the loss of species and degradation of environments. When they were given a definition for biodiversity, 47% of the respondents in 2002 (Biodiversity Project, 2002) and 41% in 1996 (Biodiversity Project, 1996) stated that stemming the loss of species was very important to them personally. In the 2002 poll, 69% stated they had a personal, and 65% said they had a moral, responsibility to protect all plant and animal life. Also, half (in 1996) or slightly more (in 2002) of the respondents strongly supported the Federal Endangered Species Act.

Another important aspect of public attitudes toward biodiversity is the high level of influence of aesthetic, ethical, patriotic, familial, and religious values in motivating a sense of responsibility for stewardship. In the 2002 Biodiversity Project poll, 64% regarded a wide variety of animals and plants as one of the most important things in their lives, and 71% felt that nature provided them with inspiration and a peace of mind. Respect for God's work, respect for nature for its own sake, the need to provide for future generations, the appreciation of the beauty of nature, the need to maintain a balanced healthy life, and the expectation as an American citizen to protect natural resources all were regarded as ''extremely important'' reasons for protecting the environment by a large percentage of respondents. These are important connections, because they pave the way to educating the public on biodiversity issues in ways to which they personally respond.

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