Conservationist Wallace J. Nichols, known for his work protecting sea turtles and the ocean, argues that environmental problems should be addressed using neuroscience and empathy, in addition to the existing facts, figures and statistics. He says people make decisions based on various emotions (product marketers certainly can attest to this), but environmentalists don’t really speak to those emotions in their work. “We should be using words like happiness and love,” he says. “Not in the hippie way but in the neuroscience way.”
Nichols is a research associate at the California Academy of Sciences; founder of Grupo Tortuguero, a grassroots effort that focuses on restoring Pacific sea turtles; and co-director of Ocean Revolution, which mentors the next generation of ocean conservation leaders. We talked recently between his research trips to El Salvador and Baja. Excerpts of our conversation are below.
I’ve read about your work with turtles. What are you working on today?
My work with ocean stuff started with sea turtles when I was a kid. A lot of people have big ideas when they’re kids, but what will you do when you’re an adult? So I thought I could be a marine biologist. But as far as I knew, Jacques Cousteau already had the job, and nobody really encouraged me to follow my dreams.
I did my PhD work on sea turtles in Baja and studied their genetics and migration. In the meantime they were being caught in nets and killed and eaten and going extinct. So I started getting involved in the human dimension and started learning about the science of persuasion by talking to fishermen about what motivated them. So in parallel to the science, there is the social change work, and that’s where things have continued.
So I’m a scientist but also a conservationist/activist/community organizer/communicator, which now extends beyond sea turtles to all the issues around the sea turtles —plastic pollution in the ocean, over fishing, coastal development. I started an effort called Live Blue, which puts a positive spin on ocean conservation and an ocean lifestyle, instead of just a list of things you shouldn’t do, shouldn’t eat, shouldn’t think, shouldn’t wear, shouldn’t buy.
Let’s go back to what you called the “human dimension” and the dialogues with Baja fishermen around conservation. What’s the hardest part of that work?
Institutionally, we’re not set up to even talk about it, to begin a real conversation about human emotions and how important they are to all of this. So we end up talking about economics and biodiversity, but not emotion. And most of the people I know are making most of their decisions based somewhat, if not mostly, on emotions--and we act like that’s not the case. And it leads to failure.
Interestingly, marketing of product is all emotional: Coke uses happiness to sell sugar water; Subaru uses love to sell cars. We in the conservation world use facts to sell well-being, and it doesn't work that well. And we wonder why people aren’t paying attention to our facts, statistics and reports. So there’s this disconnect: People make decisions based on a whole lot of different emotions, but we don’t really address them in our work. We should be using words like happiness and love—not in the hippie way, but in the neuroscience way.
The field of cognitive neuroscience, the science of well-being, of empathy—it’s all happening now. I’ve said for a long time if I could do grad school again, I’d do a degree in neuroscience and do a degree in neuro-conservation, which doesn’t exist yet.
What would that study involve?
An application of cognitive neuroscience to solve leading problems in the environment. Just like neuroscience is currently merging with marketing and economics.
So in a perfect world, how would this role of neuro-conservation play out? How would it factor into our education and the conversation about the environment?
Our institutions would be incorporating full knowledge about the benefits of the social, physiological and health benefits of a healthy environment Our public health institutions would be considering the public health benefits of access to the coast as city planning/coastal planning is carried out.
If stress causes disease, which we know it does, and disease reduces well-being, which we know it does, a reduction of stress reduces disease. And if sitting on the beach and looking to the ocean reduces stress, which we know it does, then sitting on the beach is a public health tool. A very inexpensive one, less expensive than drugs—prescription or otherwise. It sounds far out, and people look at you like you’re, well, Californian—but it’s really not. It’s science-based. If you find something that’s free or inexpensive that reduces stress and it’s available to the public, you would think that promoting it would be good.
So in a perfect world, this type of thinking leads to more integrated, enlightened public policy and conversation. People could say, “I’m feeling stressed, I’m going to sit on the beach. I understand what it does to my brain because I learned that in school. I know why the color blue and the sound of waves makes me feel good.”
Hand-in-hand with this is a K-12 neuroscience curriculum, so when you graduate from high school you know you have a brain and how it works, how it’s influenced and how the environment and food affect your brain.
We understand if we have a sore throat, we have a cold coming on , and there’s some things you can do like get in bed or drink more liquids. We have a general understating of our health issues, but we don’t yet have an understanding of our brain. It has the potential to be somewhat revolutionary.
As it is, we don’t really teach our kids much about how their brains work, so that leaves us vulnerable to those who do understand it. So we’re sold sugar water with the promise of happiness and the color of red. And it seems to work. People buy it.
What three things need to happen to move this concept forward?
- Teaching a K-12 neuroscience curriculum at every school. We have almost none of it now. That’s as important as some environmental education. I might even put a neuroscience curriculum in front of environmental ed in terms of importance.
- Institutionalizing it in some way so there are people on staff in our higher education institutions, government agencies and leading organizations who understand the mind-nature connection.
- Using that language in all of our efforts to promote environmental and human health, much like marketing is currently done with products. We’d spend less time trying to convince people of the emotional connection based on research.
The key thing is, I’m not suggesting that we jettison rational thinking. The idea is that we can think rationally about our emotions. We can think critically and creatively about how to understand our emotional lives.
I have a student who is beginning to work on the premium that is put on real estate, based on view of the ocean. For example, you have two penthouse apartments in San Francisco. One faces the city, one faces the ocean. The ocean view would sell for half a million dollars more. If you added up all those premiums, that extra value for a box with a view--it’s in the billions of dollars, for just one city. And globally it’s probably trillions of dollars.
People aren’t really talking about it. It’s just this understanding that the water makes it more valuable?
Right, they’re not talking about it. It’s frustrating. I applied for a Pew fellowship and wrote the best proposal ever of my life, and they were like, “too creative” and I’m like, “Not really… just connecting the dots.”
Where is your next trip?
I am going to Baja at the end of the month for the 13th annual meeting of Grupo Tortuguero [Turtle Group], a model grassroots project we created. It’s grown to be quite big, spread over 3,000 to 4,000 miles of coastline.
We’ll never be able to pay people enough to stop doing something they like to do—like hunting and eating turtles. So the motivation can’t be only financial. If we’re asking them to give something up, we need to offer something good, and this meeting needs to be more than a meeting. It has this meeting/family reunion/big party/mental download/learning opportunity feel to it, and there are awards that are given to different communities. Humans are motivated for a whole bunch of reasons--it turns out love of family, pride, doing the right thing, solving problems and learning new things are all really important.
It’s a different approach [to turtle conservation], with the understanding that the resources will never exist for the enforcement on the water that would be needed. Rather than wait for the government to allocate resources and wait for corruption to go away, we took a different approach. When the government sees the program is successful, they get on board.
Some of the fishermen I’m working with in Mexico, I’d say, if they were born where I was born, they’d be the marine biologists, and if I were born there, I’d be the curious fisherman and would help the turtle guy track turtles.
So have they stopped eating turtles?
Yeah, a lot of them. The conversation often goes, “In our home we eat 10 turtles a year.” So you say, “Could you eat eight?” And then they say, “Yeah, we could do that.” Then they come back the next year and say, “We only ate six this year.” And you say, “That’s better than 10.” And they say, “Next year we’re going to eat none.”
That’s not to say poaching is gone. But enough so that the population is on the rise. The science is ongoing, and we’re seeing a positive trend.
Photos: Neil Osborne