Review of Common Cause for Nature: A Practical Guide to Values and Frames in Conservation

Common Cause p

There is no doubt that the natural world is in decline. In fact, species are going extinct faster than they have since the fall of the dinosaurs (Worrall, 2014). But how does one encourage others to take meaningful action to reverse this trend?

As explained in Common Cause for Nature: A Practical Guide to Values and Frames in Conservation, the answer is not to frighten people. Nor is it to flood them with numbers. Instead, we need to understand that human behavior often has more to do with emotion than reason (Butler, 2015). Rather than lamenting this fact, we should use it. Common Cause for Nature is full of practical advice that will help conservationists tap into the subjective drivers of human behavior. Importantly, all of its suggestions are based on science.

Developed by the Public Interest Research Centre (PIRC), Common Cause for Nature devotes special attention to human values. Through years of research, the PIRC has uncovered enlightening information about how values shape human behavior. According to Common Cause, universal human values can be divided into two super-categories: intrinsic and extrinsic values.

Conservationists should aim to promote intrinsic values. Amazon by Nao Lizuka. CC BY 2.0
Conservationists should aim to promote intrinsic values. Amazon by Nao Lizuka. CC BY 2.0

Intrinsic values underlie many pro-social behaviors. They center around the sub-categories of benevolence (e.g. kindness towards others), universalism (e.g. social equality and unity with nature), and self-direction (e.g. independence). The second super-category, extrinsic values, contains the sub-groups of power and achievement. They include values related to personal wealth and success, respectively.

The authors of Common Cause found that appealing to intrinsic values is an effective way to encourage socially responsible behavior. Activating extrinsic values is not only ineffective for conservation purposes, but counterproductive. The reason for this is that the two super-categories mutually oppose one another. This means that communicating in monetary terms can suppress the very values conservationists should be promoting. This carries important implications for the practice of ecosystem valuation (determining how much money nature is worth).

Concern for wildlife and compassion towards people go hand-in-hand. Harmony Day by DIAC Images. CC BY 2.0
Concern for wildlife and compassion towards people go hand-in-hand. Harmony Day by DIAC Images. CC BY 2.0

Another eye-opening concept discussed in Common Cause for Nature is the spillover effect. When a value is activated, it will also trigger related ones. For example, thinking about social justice can make individuals more concerned about the environment. Therefore conservation organizations would benefit from promoting compassion towards wildlife and people. Few groups do this better than the Snow Leopard Trust.

Common Cause for Nature is an enlightening and important book. It contains many lessons on how to spark behavior changes that will create a better future for all. Significantly, all of the recommendations in Common Cause are founded on scientific research. For these reasons, Common Cause for Nature is the newest addition to this site’s Recommended Reading section.

Further Reading:

R Hawkins (2012, July 4). Common Cause for Nature [Blog]. Retrieved from

The Public Interest Research Centre’s Home Page

22 Thoughts

  1. Another way, rather than rely on the inconsistent ‘intrinsic’ values, which tend toward social or cultural values (and therefore change throughout human history), you can subscribe to a more utilitarian point of view.
    Utilitarian being the philosophical school of thought that accepts ‘moral’ to mean the most beneficial to those that create utility (easily definable as people).
    I would recommend you take a read of Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation. It’s a little more controversial, but I think you would be able to appreciate it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the comment Nam! Throughout most of the history of the current conservation movement (I can’t speak to how wildlife was managed before), it seems like utilitarian values have been the most prevalent. This has led to some notable successes, such as the creation of national forests in the US. I agree that we should definitely continue to use this approach, especially since some people respond well to it.

      But there is good evidence that in some cases, appealing to intrinsic values can produce good results. I think we need to use this approach more often, because it is currently underutilized. Since intrinsic values motivate behaviors that benefit nature and people, fostering them can also have positive effects beyond the realm of wildlife conservation.

      To sum it all up, we need to be willing and able to promote both utilitarian and intrinsic values. Which set should be fostered more heavily will depend on the characteristics of the population in question: yet another reason why it’s important to intimately understand our target audience. But I think that even when primarily using the utilitarian approach, we also need to promote intrinsic values (albeit more subtly). Hopefully by doing so people will feel a stronger sense of connection with both the natural world and each other.

      Lastly, thank you for the book recommendation! I shall look it up when I have time.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I agree with you, it’s just I have an inherent dislike of intrinsic values. They are very inconsistent and very much individual, whereas utilitarian values are social.
        I understand your point completely though, and I’ll be sure to think more on it.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. In todays society it may be worthwhile looking into some type of ownership. Just a thought. This type of thinking could reach across most cultures. Most people look after what they own so I was thinking if there was a way of instilling some form of ownership whether it be water etc it could have a chain reaction type situation. What are your thoughts on that. Dan

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think the idea of ownership is one of the motivations for community-based conservation. The idea is that if local people are given more say over how to manage wildlife they’ll take more responsibility for it. Sometimes this works, and sometimes it doesn’t. As of yet I’m not too sure as to why, so I’m afraid to go into too much detail and potentially say something ridiculous. However, I do know that one complicating factor is that sometimes local people aren’t given enough authority to manage wildlife effectively. I imagine this doesn’t help them feel any more ownership over conservation efforts.

      Still, I feel that government needs to maintain some involvement in wildlife conservation. There needs to be some sort of oversight as to how things are managed, or we may have a tragedy of the commons. Basically when private organizations or individuals manage common pool resources (like nature) in ways that serve their best interests, eventually the resource runs out. So there needs to be some regulation to keep that from happening.

      Lastly, Common Cause for Nature is about the most helpful ways to talk about nature; according to social psychology research. It doesn’t really make specific management recommendations, other than how organizations should tailor their communications. I just wanted to make that clear in case there was any confusion.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Are you referring to the beached whales in Germany that had a whole bunch of garbage in their stomachs? If so, that is terrible news. It also shows why it’s important to consider how our actions may impact the natural world – and why it’s good to foster personal connections to it.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Great post. I love the idea of a spillover effect.

    It seems logical that a culture that has a core set of principles regarding justice, human rights, and a healthy reverence for the miracle of being creates a healthier environment for everything.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That is absolutely true. Some sources claim that species are going extinct 1,000 faster than they did before humans started altering the planet. Here’s one article on the topic:

      But this mass extinction is unlike anything Earth has seen before. It’s not being orchestrated by a cataclysmic event, but by the actions of a single species. However, this also means that the current mass extinction can at least be greatly slowed by our actions. I believe that if we can significantly reduce the rate of habitat destruction, stop killing animals wantonly, and either slow population growth or completely redefine the way we distribute resources; we can give many species enough time to adapt to human-altered landscapes.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.