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Bugs have feelings too

By Katherine E Welch, on 4 March 2013

preying mantis (c) istockphoto pernter

campaigning on behalf of bugs         (c) istockphoto/pernter

On March 1 a new campaign to save the tiger was launched a St Pancras train station in central London. The station is filled with images and sculptures of the majestic creature while campaigners wander around with clipboards and collection tins asking for support or donations. At the same time, Coca-Cola has lent its mighty marketing machine to support the WWF’s campaign to save polar bears, again festooning its cans and television adverts with images of cute and cuddly polar bears. What these campaigns have in common, along with so many others, is the attractiveness of their subjects.

Don’t get me wrong, any campaign to protect the environment or wildlife is great, but stop for a moment and think – would you give your support if the campaign was for the protection of worms?

My point is, perhaps we are missing the point. For many of us the importance of biodiversity – not individual species – to the well-being of our environment, and by extension ourselves, is now painfully clear. In 2010, UNDP Administrator Helen Clark, gave a keynote speech in New York at a high level event on Biodiversity, Ecosystems and Climate Change, stressing the “triple challenge of biodiversity loss, climate change and poverty” and the need for a new model of development which “builds on ecosystem-based initiatives rooted at the local level”. Furthermore, for many the Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) study launch in 2007 was a turning point in the recognition of the role ecosystem services play in supporting and regulating the environment as well as providing resources from food, water and energy, to medicines.

Yet it still feels that the vast majority of environmental campaigns targeted at the general public focus on the cute and cuddly. Why? To put it bluntly, beauty sells. A study in the journal Anthrozoos in 20011 suggested that while, when asked what should matter for conservation policy people chose maintaining a healthy ecosystem, the US Fish and Wildlife Service also took into consideration the animal’s size and the extent to which it constitutes a ‘higher’ form of life. The study went on to say that “it appears to be folk wisdom among environmentalist campaigners that pictures of attractive animals help generate support for their cause”. Yet a report in Nature in 20052 indicated that approaches to conservation that seek to protect the most endangered species have had mixed success. Furthermore, a study in Environmental Economics in 20073 found that the “public’s allocation of fund for conserving wildlife species seems to be more sensitive to information about the conservation status of species than to factors influencing their likeability”.


the not-so-cute naked mole rat

So the jury is still out, but the question remains – how many environmental campaigns do you see featuring worms, or cockroaches, or the naked mole rat for that matter?

But what can we do? Well there are plenty of things. Personally, I’m a support of campaigns for bees. OK they’re still fairly cute,  but they also play a critical role as pollinators, for both natural biodiversity and crop production. And we can support the bees without giving money (although you can do that too) simply by growing pollinating plants in our gardens or in pots, and a habitat for them to live in. What I’m getting at is that we all just need to be a bit more biodiversity aware, because bugs are as important to the planet’s health as polar bears, if not more so.

So next time you buy a can of coke do congratulate yourself on protecting the Arctic (every little helps), but maybe have a think about what you could do to support the birds and the bees closer to home.

1 Gunnthorsdottir, A. (2001) Physical Attractiveness of an Animal Species as a Decision Factor for its Preservation. Anthrozoos 14(4) 

2 Odling-Smee, L. (2005) Dollars and sense.  Nature, vol 437

3 Tisdella, C.; Swarna Nanthaa, H.; Wilsonb, C. (2007) 
Endangerment and likeability of wildlife species: How important are they for payments proposed for conservation? 
Ecological Economics Volume 60, Issue 3, 627–633

Katherine Welch is Deputy Director of the UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources

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