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Beyond ‘no,’ more positive visions for conservation need communication (commentary)

  • “I have become increasingly concerned that [environmentalists’] ongoing failures stem at least partially from really bad messaging,” a new op-ed states.
  • “We are so focused on being against things that we keep missing an opportunity to be for something…We desperately need new climate-friendly visions for our economies and governance systems that we can all get behind, not just a laundry list of what not to do,” the Cambridge scholar continues.
  • Some environmentalists are starting to push more positive communications and the development of transformative visions for conservation, such as developing “socio-bioeconomies” to replace existing economic models.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily of Mongabay.

As our global thermostat keeps ticking up, species continue to vanish from the face of the planet, and as more and more lives are ruined by natural disasters, it’s clear that we are failing horribly to address the world’s most pressing sustainability challenges.

Despite our news pages being filled with floods and fires, despite large-scale youth mobilizations getting increasingly desperate for action, and despite pages and pages of rigorous science telling us we need to be doing better, we have barely moved the needle on global greenhouse gas emissions or biodiversity loss.

Every year, thousands of potentially influential representatives of business, government, and civil society meet to discuss solutions to these climate and sustainability challenges, but still little changes. Last month was not much different, with thousands gathering in the context of the UN General Assembly meeting and Climate Week in New York.

“The way out of the climate and ecological crisis is collective. Hope is in the movement that we know how to build,” Nicole Becker, Argentina. Photo © UNICEF/UN0364362.
Photo courtesy of UNICEF/UN0364362.

Once again, conversations focused on marginal improvements in carbon emissions targets, for example from Brazil, which announced plans to increase its targeted emissions reduction to 53% reduction from 2005 by 2025. Worse, some countries like the UK even backtracked on their climate ambitions. More broadly, major businesses were condemned for continuing to fall short on their climate pledges.

After 20 years of working as an environmental scholar, I have become increasingly concerned that our ongoing failures stem at least partially from really bad messaging. Just stop oil. End forest destruction. Don’t eat meat. These pleas play well with people who already care about environmental issues, but they turn many people off and are deeply unpopular. We put people on the defensive while failing to make any meaningful difference.  These messages also position environmentalists directly against the powerful actors that drove our sustainability crises, thereby generating significant backlash and misinformation, without directing action towards any specific alternatives.

We are so focused on being against things that we keep missing an opportunity to be for something in our fight for a sustainable future.  We desperately need new climate-friendly visions for our economies and governance systems that we can all get behind, not just a laundry list of what not to do. We need visions that cut through polarized visions of right and wrong, and focus on how we collectively could all be better off with new opportunities.

Instead of offering up specific, large-scale plans to transform our economies to address climate and biodiversity challenges at events like this one, we cling to piecemeal, flawed silver bullets. We then throw them away because they don’t work perfectly in the imperfect world we have created. We need only look at the tree planting fiasco of the last few years for evidence of that.

Over the course of two years, tree planting was first framed as a breakthrough solution to climate change, carried forward by a frenzied media, and then quickly rejected as evidence came forward that these schemes typically fail, do very little to tackle climate change, and often exacerbate other social and ecological challenges. This debate recaptured the attention of influential leaders after Bill Gates described tree planting as “complete nonsense” as a climate solution in late September. Now, the cycle of hope and destruction continues with carbon offsets.

See related: Reforestation done right, from Haiti to Honduras and Ho Chi Minh City

A pine seedling being planted
A pine seedling planted in California. Image by Pacific Southwest Forest Service, USDA via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

An exception to our failings is the progress that has been made on green energy for electricity generation. When people made the links between renewables and high-quality job creation on a backdrop of fossil fuel driven inflation, it sparked a vision for the U.S. economy that many people could get behind. Taking America’s Inflation Reduction Act as a key example of this, we can see its massive success. Green energy continues to get cheaper and cheaper in the U.S. and green jobs continue to grow. The policy is now supported across political parties.

In the area of forest conservation, we now have decades of science detailing how and why deforestation control efforts have largely failed. Mostly they aren’t enforced, don’t cover enough area, or don’t provide sufficient incentives for people to stop clearing forests in the face of significant counter pressure.

That’s why I strongly support the development of more transformative visions for conservation. One such vision is the idea of developing “socio-bioeconomies” to replace existing economic models. As the name implies, these efforts seek to build on the unique social, cultural and biological diversity of tropical forests as the basis of economic development, rather than clearing forests for mines, timber, and low-diversity agriculture. This idea is included in Brazil’s newest deforestation prevention plan by President Lula, but more tropical countries need to sign onto this idea, and it needs international support.

A key element of socio-bioeconomies – like broader calls for “doughnut economics” – is that they take justice and diversity as their guiding values, rather than profit and efficiency. They seek to protect and empower Indigenous and traditional communities and bring benefits to the poor through decent work, innovation, and improved value-sharing.

See related: Indigenous environmental defenders among favorites for Nobel Peace Prize

Fany Kuiru (right) with other Indigenous leaders at the March to End Fossil Fuels event in New York City on September 17, 2023. Image courtesy of the Confederation of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin (COICA).
Indigenous leaders at the March to End Fossil Fuels event in New York City just prior to Climate Week 2023. Image courtesy of the Confederation of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin.

Calls for socio-bioeconomies include:

i) plans for more integrated forest economies that take advantage of co-benefits for the environment, education, and health,

ii) new supply chains and infrastructure to connect producers of forest-friendly products to growing urban populations in tropical forest nations, and

iii) new manufacturing opportunities to bring benefits to local communities.

Some key examples of this include fair contracts between cosmetic companies and Indigenous communities to source plant ingredients, government food purchasing programs that source sustainable products from traditional communities for school lunches, and the creation of rubber processing facilities to purchase latex from rubber tappers and employ community members to produce condoms or leather-free shoes.

What both green energy and socio-bioeconomy efforts have in common is their ability to move past misguided debates about trading off jobs and development with the environment. That’s a lie we were sold. Destroying our environment mostly benefits the rich consumers of the world. And the world’s poorest are always the ones who suffer.

After years of digesting these lies, I was very heartened during my own participation in Climate Week to finally see some major changes in the narratives and interests of the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank towards socio-bioeconomy programs. They are starting to recognize that traditional, environmentally-destructive “development” approaches have not brought inclusive benefits.

Let’s build on this progress to develop more positive visions of what we want our economies to look like and elevate them through new forms of international cooperation and finance.

Without structural changes to our economies, no nature-based solution, no green bond, and no corporate social responsibility measure is going to make much of a difference to our climate challenges.


Rachael Garrett is the Moran Professor of Conservation and Development at Cambridge University and serves on U.N. scientific advisory groups, including the Science Panel for the Amazon, where she co-authored a policy brief on supporting socio-bioeconomies with Amazonian colleagues.

Related audio from Mongabay’s podcast: Our reporters have revealed that even the U.N. could increase its climate ambition and leadership, listen here:

See related coverage of bioeconomies:

A standing Amazon Rainforest could create an $8 billion bioeconomy: Study


Greenpeace activists built a carbon bomb to protest Carbon Dioxide Capture and Storage at a protest in Germany. Image courtesy of Karsten Smid / Greenpeace Media Library.
German Greenpeace activists built a carbon bomb to protest carbon dioxide capture and storage (CCS)  technologies as being ineffective solutions for halting climate change. Image courtesy of Karsten Smid / Greenpeace Media Library.
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