Branding “Charismatic Mega-Fauna” versus Our Planet: What Sells? (What Works?)

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I love the “green view” editorial from this week’s The Economist magazine. It talks about environmental groups using “charismatic mega-fauna” or “flagship species” to promote a specific cause. The rest of us would call those critters mountain gorillas, polar bears, panda bears, dolphins, whales, even the less-than-mega-sized yet adorable koala bears and the somewhat clumsy penguins. In these animals we can see behaviors or traits that we might exhibit or relate to. They’re charming and endearing to us. Or, they’re just plain cool. Of course we need to save them — and without any further delay. In fisheries, the groups have sometimes focused on giant and popular species like swordfish and sharks to draw attention to the problems in our ocean. It’s not a bad strategy — actually, it’s an effective strategy because it directs people toward a subject that they might otherwise care very little about.
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For example, would a person care if our anchovy, sardine, rockfish, or any number of unknown or unappreciated or puny or slimy or homely critters—like the monkfish—are eaten or pushed out of existence? Probably not.
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[The problem is, of course, when these same groups use the charismatic animal symbols to simply stuff their own organization's coffers rather than applying the money to direct conservation efforts. Critics call these mega-wealthy, noise-making groups the "Conflict Industry" that purposely creates a culture of fear and "end-of-the-world" scenarios to raise money. Those tend to fall on the so-called "liberal" extreme whereas the apocalyptic fear-mongering that breeds unfettered consumerism as a way to bring "comfort" comes from the "conservative" extreme. As you might guess, both of these tail ends are uber wealthy and neither could be considered progressive. Nor do they understand positive or truly effective ways to relate to humans or society.]
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What I love about The Economist feature is that its author tells the bigger story: Even some of the conservation groups are coming to realize that Earth’s salvation lies in considering the entire ecosystem in all of its splendor and complexity… No, it’s not sexy. No, it’s not easy to raise funds and keep themselves employed on behalf of a bunch of gnarly plants, creepy snakes, slimy worms, miniscule soil microbes, bug-eyed animals, flightless birds or ghastly-looking fish, but that’s what many of these “indicator” species happen to look like, and, happen to show us how well (or not) our planet’s wildlife are doing. And guess what? The way our wildlife are doing also indicates how well we, as people/humans, are doing. Everything on Earth is interconnected: our economies, our ecosystems, our health.
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The fact that, what, half of our planet’s species could go extinct before our grandchildren graduate high school is a serious problem. I’m not using hyperbole. No one believes or listens to that “sky is falling” stuff. Just think, though, your child will see very few wild animals, and your child’s child will see fewer still unless we act pronto. The alternative is that we instead sit back complacent, as fat cats, and settle for cloned replicas of our favorite “charismatic mega fauna” and everything else we care to devour.
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I asked my mentor, Michael Glantz, Ph.D., director of the Center for Capacity Building and author of Fragile Ecologies for his opinion and he says he fears “that we won’t even need zoos in the future, once a company comes out with scratch and sniff video sets: a video of an elephant or zoo animals and you sit and scratch a piece of paper, sniff it, and it smells like elephant and rhino dung or the like.”
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We are, pathetically, headed this way. But, we all could live a little—or a lot—lighter on our shared planet. We could start considering ourselves part of a bigger, interrelated picture. Once I get a “blog roll” going on this site, I will share some insights as well as practical steps via some of our many partners out there, without necessarily sacrificing our comfy lives. Just changing our lifestyles somewhat (short-term sacrifice for TRULY long-term comfort and security), for yourself, your offspring, your legacy. It won’t be painful, but it will be rewarding.
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Last, I admit that one thing I disturbingly liked about The Economist story — is it ended in the way I wrote ages ago about the very serious plight of mountain gorillas. If you’re interested, e-mail me at patti(at)passionfish(dot)org and I will send you the magazine story. In a nutshell, the story’s ending is about how we humans exploit the skin, the limbs, the sheer existence of other creatures for our own fleeting, hedonistic pleasure.
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[POST NOTE: This following Sacramento Bee story by top-notch journalist Tom Knudson is a great example of how environmental issues could be portrayed as complex as they really are. His story describes The Dark Side of Biofuels. Read it. You'll see that we need to broaden our thinking and that wildlife like the orangutans described in the story need our help.]

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