Monday, November 9, 2015

Trophy Hunting: A bugbear (and moral test) for politicians

Grizzly bear sow and cubs, image courtesy of Andy Wright

Kai published an op-ed in the National Observer on trophy hunting for grizzly bears in B.C. In it he warns Premier Christy Clark that her stance on this issue risks tarring her with a moral stain, as many voters see this as an issue of appropriate vs. abhorrent relationships with nature, not a purely economic matter.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Once and Future World - a book review.

By Maayan Kreitzman

Our lab copy of the book

At the time that British Romantics invented the notion of wilderness as a spiritual sanctuary, the British landscape had already been transformed into docile parkland, and was starting to bear the violent marks of the industrial revolution. In the Once and Future World, J. B. McKinnon suggests that this is not a coincidence. Is romantic nature-loving only possible in a world that has already been transformed by humans through the eradication of species and changing of landscapes? I'd definitely never thought about that before. But now that I am, the ability to walk through the forest unarmed (unthinkable before the mass predator and megafauna extinctions caused by man) seems pretty necessary for the benign, loving, beautiful nature we relate to today, not to mention for the production of iconic works of nature-loving romanticism like “Tintern Abbey”. Wait then - were those extinctions a good thing?

In the Once and Future World, which I just finished reading, there are many examples of how humans have transformed wild nature. More interesting though, are the ways that humans have pretty much been ok with that. The book tells the story of how nature gets continuously subdued and redefined by man. How social collapse due to ecological change is relatively rare. What's more common, instead, is the adaptation of humans to progressively denuded states of nature.

As McKinnon writes, the world today is a ruin – a beautiful ruin, but a ruin nonetheless. By itself this sentence makes you expect yet another doom-and-gloom environmentalist manifesto, preaching about the past glories of nature and the destruction human societies have wreaked. But that's not what this book is about at all. Without context, you might think that living in a ruin is a bad thing – but as you slowly figure out, McKinnon doesn't actually see things this way. Take Europe – a continent-sized wasteland, or in other words, a pastoral paradise. It used to be a place infested with lions, wooly rhinoceros, and giant ground sloth. Now, it is a pleasant, relaxing, human-scale landscape, where nothing bigger than a lynx or wild boar is likely to harass you. Certainly, it is orders of magnitude less diverse, less wild, and less rich (in terms of collecting wild food off the land) than it used to be. But with other ways to feed ourselves, maybe nature (such as it is) is more enjoyable and more functional (from a human perspective) in the Europe of today than it ever could have been in wilder times. McKinnon clearly isn't on this side of the argument either. On the contrary, overall he makes a heartfelt plea in favor of a wilder world. At the same time, the alternative is valid too - from contemporary Europe to the Hawaiian islands, history shows that humans can thrive on a poorer, tamer world. But do we want to?

The Once and Future World is a more nuanced take on the concepts of conservation and rewilding than your typical rah-rah environmentalist nonfiction. McKinnon mines history and prehistory to track the correlations between events in human demography/migration with changes in wild plants and animals. This includes destruction, butchering, and collapse. But McKinnon also takes care in exploring the patterns of this destruction. For example, the pattern of “we ate the big ones first”, as well as the pattern of “unimaginable abundance to extinction”, everywhere in the world, over and over again. Yet there is also reciprocity, and apparent sustainability at certain times in history. And there is technology and ingenuity (from prehistory to the present), allowing humans to live very happily in an environment that is a ruin of its former self.

Compared to the abundance of life on this planet that existed, it is irrefutable that even what we think of as wilderness today is denuded - of megafauna (all over the world) and of the sheer amounts of everything else that has not gone extinct. The book explores the concept of shifting baselines in depth – that is, progressively reduced states of nature become the 'real' or 'normal' nature. Sometimes this happens so drastically that the return of an animal or community from the distant past is viewed as unnatural. The book tells fascinating histories of species, from grizzlies and foxes on the North American prairie, to giant turtles, sharks, and whales in the Southern Ocean. These natural histories open up the imagination to the abundance of life that existed and perhaps could exist, yet are so far outside of our current frame of reference. The stories of grizzlies (which used to be a plains animal, now thought of as a remote mountain animal), whales (formerly huge carbon sinks and ecosystem engineers that fertilized the entire ocean with iron), and sharks (in really thriving reef ecosystems, they compose 75% of reef biomass), stunningly reveal baselines that have shifted so massively that we need active acts of imagination to shift them in reverse.

Yet this book isn't an outright depressing read at all. Humans aren't anachronistic opposites to nature for McKinnon. Rather, we can choose to want to live in a wilder world - wilder internally and wilder externally. What does internal wildness mean exactly? It might start from seeking to pay attention to the feeling that when you go outside, you are not exactly safe. It might be to engage the alertness of all your senses, and know, that like other creatures on this planet, you could die. On the more practical side, McKinnon only scratches the surface of the questions of feeding and maintaining 7 (not to mention 10) billion people in a wilder world. But quantitative forecasting or playing with numbers isn't the point of this book. Its strength is psychological, reflective - it argues a nuanced point that isn't so easy to grasp: that we can thrive on this planet and still desire a wilder world where other species do too. That rewilding and conservation aren't self-abnegating, all-or-nothing, futile aspirations to go backwards. Rather, they can be a contemporary way forward for humans to thrive with wild and abundant nature, made up of both dangerous and pastoral landscapes, and inhabited by many creatures, both deadly and docile.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

What can conservation learn from fashion marketing?

By Alejandra Echeverri and Andrea Echeverri

For those of us who are concerned about the environment, our minds spin all day thinking: how can we make life better for the diversity of human and non-human life on this planet? And by that we mean, how do we make people use less water, buy less stuff, take public transit rather than drive, donate more money to conservation of endangered species, etc.?

This is still a challenge for those of us who work in conservation and this is why people like me (Alejandra) do what we do, because we believe that the world would be a better place if we could address those questions better. But for those of us who work in fashion marketing, like me (Andrea), getting people to care about fashion is the easiest part. The challenge is to innovate and re-launch products that have short life spans so that they seduce costumers each time while providing continual profits.

Innovation is required in the fashion industry and conservation. Firstly, conservation campaigns need to get the attention of broader audiences, not only the attention of those who already care. Campaigns should induce attitude changes toward the environment and hopefully induce behavior changes. Tree-hugging-style campaigns (that are currently massively communicated) are not sufficient, because they portray an image that is not representative of most people, appealing only to a subset (generally, upper middle class, often white and already left-leaning). Secondly, fashion-marketing campaigns need to be innovative in multiple ways: by designing and manufacturing new products (product innovation), re-branding to meet consumer expectations, and re-shaping consumer experience (from the in-store experience to online shopping experience).

Here we compare a few examples of what usually constitutes a “good conservation campaign” and a “good fashion campaign”:


  • Evoke positive emotions: Use popular, charismatic species such as elephants, tigers, and pandas that serve as symbols to stimulate conservation awareness. This generates emotional responses (see tiger picture).
  • Evoke negative emotions: By inducing fear, sadness, and amplifying the risks, people will think twice about their actions. Sometimes negative frames are more persuasive than positive frames (Example: “animals are not clowns” shown in picture).
  • Send a simple message that calls for a single and doable action: For example: “Turn off the lights! It all adds up!”
  • Be smart about peer pressure: Try to reinforce norms that people in the audience are already following: like recycling being perceived as a good thing to do.

Wildlife trust of India and Hard Rock Café campaign to save tigers.

Acçāo Animal and Liga Portuguesa dos Direitos campaign raising awareness on using animals in circuses

  • Understand the demographics of your potential costumers: Understanding the gender, age, race, location, income, etc. of potential costumers is crucial for orienting campaigns to specific groups (see Rihanna's picture). 
  • Seduce costumers:  In fashion marketing we need to get costumers to want to look like or “be like” the person we are showing. A good way to think about this is to imagine the customer and think: who is this person? What does this person like? After knowing this, the campaign should accentuate the attributes that are most important to this customer. For example, if we were trying to sell toys for kids that are purchased by parents, we would have to entice two kinds of costumers: the kids and the parents. We could do this by making sure that the product fits with what kids like (e.g., shape, colors), but we need to make sure that the product fits with what parents care about (e.g., safety concerns, price). Campaigns need to accentuate both.
  • Use icons to validate the products: Let’s say we are selling sports equipment. Sales will increase if a famous sports icon shows that he (or she) is using such equipment. Just like Lionel Messi validating Adidas’ soccer cleats after he was named the best soccer player in the world in 2010 (see Messi's picture).
  • Think seasonally: Marketing products seasonally is one of the big keys in fashion marketing. First, it allows for a turnover, but second it is tuned to peoples’ current needs. For example, advertising sandals during the summer makes a lot more sense than advertising them during the winter. 

Rihanna for Dior 2015 "Secret garden campaign" conveying a sense of mystery and strength (crowd: strong and powerful women >30 yrs-old).

Messi for Adidas

We each came up with four topics that matter for different kinds of campaigns, but we both agree that our lists are not exhaustive and could have more information. Nevertheless, our lists are long enough to illustrate our point: We think very differently about what constitutes a good campaign.

Now, the interesting questions are: Who is doing a better job? Who is getting more attention? Conservation campaigns or fashion campaigns? It is not an easy question to answer, but if we look at the top 25 most popular magazines in the U.S. last year as an indicator of consumerism and success of campaigning and advertising, we find that only one magazine talks about nature (national geographic magazine), and six are fashion magazines. 

So….what can conservation learn from fashion marketing?

  • We should recognize that there are different kinds of audiences with different needs and expectations. Advertising professionals call this market segmentation. Conservation must study those different audiences and target campaigns to each one of them. We think they currently target a very broad audience, and campaigns are not really connecting with everyone. Some try to be more targeted (like LEAF program) but for the most part they are too broad. 
  • Conservation campaigns should appeal to self-esteem and self-actualization needs. This means campaigns should be directed so people feel like they can get attention and recognition from others by behaving in certain way (like not wearing fur in the following picture). People should feel like they are capable of improving themselves and reaching a fuller potential. This is only possible if positive images are shown.

Charlize Theron for Peta raising awareness on fur by sending a positive message

  • We should identify "conservation-icons" and use them to validate people’s engagement in pro-environmental behaviors, as well as to inspire other people to act in different ways. We could also use current fashion icons to leverage conservation campaigns as long as they are interested and capable of discussing sustainability issues.

Dr. Wallace J. Nichols modeling for Nautica

Dr. Wallace J. Nichols raising awareness on ocean conservation

Dr. Wallace J. Nichols is a marine biologist and a Research Associate, at the California Academy of Sciences who is a conservation icon and a fashion icon

Maybe if we start applying some of the fashion marketing principles in conservation, we can get more people to care for the environment. In a time where environmental attitude change is urgent, we imagine the potential benefits of implementing some of these ideas -- they just might work!

Alejandra is a PhD student in Resource Management and Environmental Studies at UBC, and Andrea works as a marketing coordinator for AVON Colombia.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Changes for the Next 40 Years: Balanced Academics? Is that even possible?

by Kai Chan
[Part 3 of 2—first encore! At 40, I’m still a prof, and still an idealist. In part 1, I identified four points of contention in my turbulent relationship with academia. In part 2, I pointed to three things that kept me in academia, three unexpected gifts. I was buoyed by the feedback I received from people enjoying my explicit consideration of balance, idealism and metrics of impact in academia. In response to multiple requests for forward-looking thoughts, I’ve added a two-part encore.]
It seems like an oxymoron, academics with work-life balance? If a balanced person becomes an academic,
Oxymoron or moron? Balanced and multi-tasking?
The truth is that this photo was taken for Grist,
after I won a survival kit including some juice.

don’t they inevitably become frantically overworked? And if a prof gets work-life balance, isn’t only because they’re academically ‘dead wood’? If I’m going to stick it out in academia for several more decades, here is one priority I’ll be working towards, actively and by example.
The prototypical professor is badly overworked, with little time for family and friends, perhaps judging his students in part on whether they’re in the lab on weekends. Times are changing, but not fast enough. Whereas my father missed my birth and the first few months of my life on sabbatical (no one faults him; it’s a long story), and many dads in his generation never changed a diaper, virtually every male colleague I know with young children took a parental leave to participate substantially in child rearing. Yet colleagues and I still hear profs demeaning assistant professors and grad students for not wanting it enough if they’re not chained to their desks long into the evening.
But we’ll change this.
First, we’ll challenge them. Whenever we hear someone casting aspersions on a colleague or student for not working extra hours, we’ll ask what really matters. We’ll assert, “Surely what matters is what we achieve with our time, not how long or when we work.” I have heard no rejoinder for such an assertion.
Second, we’ll challenge the system. The current system favours over-working, because of the current obsession with quantity over quality (see Fischer et al.). But there are pushes that would instead reward quality over quantity. For instance, the slow scholarship movement (see, e.g., ), which fosters slow conversations, deep thought, quality products, having fun with ideas, and creative outputs. Ironically, hastiness breeds hastiness: it takes time to distinguish meaningful, substantial contributions from meaning-light, superficial ones. But we can take the time needed to engage deeply with the literature, our own data and analyses, the manuscripts we review, etc. My lab group takes pride in various elements of slow scholarship, e.g., substantial peer reviews taking many hours, featuring high standards but also a truly constructive spirit (to foster this, we write our reviews in second-person, e.g., “Dear authors, … in your manuscript …”).
Playing with my family on the Deep Cove lookout hike.
Third, we’ll model the balance we want to see. I’ve been doing this since my first daughter was born, nearly seven years ago. Even when I wasn’t on parental leave, I had my colicky daughter most of the night, walking her around the neighbourhood for hours every night. The same happened for our second daughter. For the first four years of parenthood, I probably averaged 35 hours of work a week. I have my girls for hours every day, before and after work. Weekends are family time, except in grant season. When my wife (who works two days/week) was in Toronto with her dying father for the month of February, I ran the whole show, with the help of a wonderful group of friends and kind folks.
I mean no boast. Just as no one should be penalized for their commitment to family, I deserve no praise for mine. It’s simply my choice—my own vision for a good life and a sustainable world. Balance is deeply individual.
The Valentine's Day card I got from my daughter when I
was solo-parenting and running ragged.
Also, let’s not pretend that I’m some easy-going even-keel father and scholar. Not a chance. I’m only balanced in the sense that I’m equally (and extremely) intense in work, parenting, and exercise. (I do, however, protect my sleep and firmly believe the loads of research suggesting that it is crucial for long-term health.) In that crazy month of February, yes, we had fun for Family Day, Valentine’s, and Chinese New Year, but I also ran a very tight ship and I can’t pretend that I was ever really a picture of calm. And although I might have lots of time for family when I’m in Vancouver, I’m an intense workaholic when I’m not, e.g., working for fifteen hours straight on trains and planes to make the most of the quiet to ‘get it done’. I used to practice yoga and meditate, then I largely let it slip when I became a father. That slipping was right for the time, but I’ll get back to it before long.
Savouring the flowers with my daughter, after picking her
up from preschool.
Does role-modeling work? Well, my choices were certainly shaped by those around me. My parents and my mentors all displayed an intense commitment to family and fitness. My dad retired early to do 1000-km cycle trips with my mum (they have done at least a dozen), and he recently won bronze at the World Master’s Squash Championships (ages 70-75). And I keenly recall Gretchen Daily’s words of wisdom: “I don’t care when you work or how long. I just want you to be passionate about doing great research. If you draw inspiration from long hikes in the middle of the day, go for it.”
It’s time to spread such attitudes far and wide. There’s nothing more effective than social pressure. If you’ve got a story of someone pushing an unhealthy work-life balance, or a healthy one, or any other thought, please comment below. And if your vision of academia is one that embraces balance, please share this post.
What’s the one thing that you would do, to foster the kind of balance you seek? For me, I will strive to find time every single day for play (not just the childcare routine)—mostly with my daughters, but maybe I’ll even take up fancy dancing when I’m on the road….