The past couple of years have seen a wave of reports on Earth’s biodiversity and its dire state, finding that 1 million species are under threat of extinction and that populations of monitored animals have declined 68 percent since 1970. But how much are these scientific findings making it through to the zeitgeist? Are their numbers changing how much people care?
A new report released by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), commissioned by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), found that the number of people engaging in conversations and actions on biodiversity loss numbers hundreds of millions and is on the rise. This “eco-wakening,” as the report deems the trend, is most quickly climbing in Asia and emerging markets, with top growth and engagement rates in India, Pakistan and Indonesia, as measured between 2016 and 2020.
Coupling traditional research methods, such as surveys, with pointed analyses of the digital landscape – social media, news outlets, Google trends and search terms – the report was able to assess the “engagement, awareness and action for nature” of 80 percent of the world’s population across 54 countries. “Concern about nature loss has moved beyond activist circles and into the mainstream,” the report states.
Twitter posts about biodiversity and nature loss rose 65 percent since 2016 – driven mainly by Latin America and concern for fires in the Amazon – while Google searches for the same topics have risen 16 percent.
“Later in the year world leaders are scheduled to negotiate a global framework for addressing the nature crisis,” said Elizabeth Mrema, executive secretary of the UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity, which is facilitating the negotiations. “This research shows that people are concerned about nature loss and that concern is growing.”
Biodiversity, commonly defined as the variety of life on Earth, is foundational to food security and nutrition, medicine and pharmaceuticals, climate change mitigation and the global economy. More than half of the world’s GDP is dependent on nature, according to the World Economic Forum, and therefore put at risk by environmental degradation.
The report pins the rise in awareness to a few reasons. Most recently, COVID-19 has made humanity’s dependency on the rest of nature more apparent. A separate survey from Boston Consulting Group found that 70 percent of participants pooled from across eight countries are now more aware of human threats to the environment than before the pandemic began, and three-quarters want to see stronger environmental policies in recovery frameworks.
Protests, petitions and donation campaigns have also had an enormous effect. Coverage of protests rose 103 percent between 2018 and 2019, attributed primarily to the politically charged actions of Extinction Rebellion, as compared to 7 percent the two years prior. Campaigns around bans on single-use plastics, supply of safe drinking water and “rights of nature” movements have also reverberated through the public discourse, translating into pressure on policymakers and legislative change.
Celebrities and public figures engaged in biodiversity and nature loss hold a fair share of responsibility for pushing awareness, with 20 influencers – including the Pope, Hillary Clinton, Leonardo di Caprio, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the BBC and the New York Times – together reaching 1 billion people across their platforms.
“The movement to protect nature and biodiversity is both global and interconnected,” the report states, highlighting how the spread of Internet access – which currently reaches 60 percent of the global population – is translating into action, and often in countries other than a user’s own. For example, the majority of people who signed petitions on biodiversity and nature loss campaigns in the last five years have come from Brazil, according to global online activist network Avaaz, while donations to the same campaigns have come mostly from Germany, the U.K. and the U.S.
The consumer goods market – and the fashion and textile industry in particular, which is the second most polluting industry after oil – is also feeling the pressure of increasing buyer demand for sustainable products and services. One survey cited in the report found that “65 percent of consumers believe that when it comes to driving positive social change, brands bear as much responsibility as governments.” Google searches for sustainable goods jumped 71 percent in the report’s study period, while a number of the world’s most powerful brands – from H&M to LVMH – have made commitments to more sustainable practices with benefits for biodiversity and livelihoods.
“This latest report is a clear call to action for our industry: act or be left behind,” commented Ignacio Gavilan, director of the Sustainability Consumer Goods Forum, on the report. “Consumers will seek and champion brands that commit to sustainability.”
While overall awareness of biodiversity and nature loss is steadily rising, a number of barriers still exist for this translating into the sweeping changes needed to ensure conservation. While the number of environmental laws and legislation have grown 38-fold since 1972, according to the UN, enforcement remains a challenge, as does the costly transition of business models to become more sustainable, and – still – overall public awareness of the urgency of environmental decline.
“This work can play an important role in bringing together businesses and governments to build a circular economy that eliminates waste, generates value and regenerates nature,” said Ellen MacArthur, founder of her namesake foundation, in the foreword of the biodiversity report.