I am suspicious when government conservation policy is promoted as a religious war against animals, like Predator-Free 2050 has been (see last month’s post). Instead, why isn’t the rational case for our support being made?
I suspect that the religious and war-like language is indicative of flaws in the policy or its implementation (see my last post)
In this post, I reflect on the reputational risk to the wider conservation movement of the Predator Free 2050 policy.
Risk management when making policy
Ideally, government policy is made using evidence not only for its need but its probable success. Policy risks and costs are explicitly considered and weighed against the benefits. These are, then, communicated honestly with the public to motivate their rational support. Should failures occur, the public is then better prepared. This way their support for future conservation policies (or compliance) is not put at risk.
Failure is more likely to be accepted without opportunity costs – ‘Oh well, it was worth trying‘ – when policy and risks are communicated rationally. A rational, but failed, policy is also more likely to improve future policy and practice through institutional learning.
Predator Free 2050, on the other hand, is known to have substantial flaws, a high chance of failure and unintended consequences. It is not explicit about its risks and costs . It has been described as ‘audacious’ and ‘aspirational’, but not rational. And it is being promoted as a faith-based war on animals.
‘Rousing the troops’ instead
Extreme faith and war-like rhetoric is used to motivate emotional and uncritical support for policy. This risks, however, an equal and opposite emotional ‘backlash’ if the promise of the policy is not kept. An emotional ‘let-down’ in the hearts and minds of the wider public is more difficult to recover from than a rational disappointment.
The failure of Predator Free 2050 may lead the involved public to conclude that their support was wasted. For those who seldom support conservation work, it is further evidence that they are right not to be ‘tree-huggers’ or ‘possum killers’. Failure means that the wider public may be less inclined to support conservation projects in the future.
The problem repeats itself in government too. Treasury has funded Predator Free 2050 based on a business-case that equivocates about the risks and uncertainties. If it fails, future governments and the public service may be more circumspect about funding future conservation aspirations.
When conservationists adopt extreme policies, like Predator Free 2050, and promote them irrationally, they play a high-risk game with future opportunity costs.
Some New Zealanders have lived with war (recent immigrants) or been to war. To them, likening pest management to their experience may seem unfeeling, perhaps even offensive. My grandfather finally told his WWII story in his 80s to find it relieved him of nightmares that had plagued him for decades. The horrors he described have no resemblance to the mundane peace-time task of pest control (unless you are the pest). The use of war-like rhetoric to describe pest control leaves me feeling ‘cold’. Perhaps others feel this way too?
There are a large number of New Zealanders for whom religious and militaristic language for peace-time policy will also be a ‘turn-off’. Their world view and life-experience is so far from being religious or at war that they find those metaphors weird and uninspiring – the language of generations past. I think religious and war-like language adds an unsavory stigma to the Predator Free movement.
Better policy-making for biodiversity
When governments make risk-aware policies, they design them so that they have a reasonable chance of success, or being mostly successful. That way, successes motivate and build public support for future incremental advances in policy and goals.
And when communicating policy, governments must be honest about the uncertainties and appeal for rational support. In this way, when policy fails or reaches unexpected barriers to progress, the public are less likely to feel misled.
Smoke Free NZ is a good example. Smoke Free NZ did not propose eliminating tobacco or smoking. Instead, it aimed to reduce smoking rates and protect non-smokers from second-hand smoke. Smoke Free 2025 was also advocated as a rational policy to benefit everyone. It was not promoted using religious or militaristic language. Smoke Free 2025 has met with extraordinary success.
Science-based policy and communications strategy
When science informs the design and goals of conservation policy the policy is more likely to be achievable, have fewer risks, and have risk-transparent objectives. As such the policy’s implementation is more likely to reinforce, rather than put at risk, public support.
A conservative, science-based approach is more powerful. The usefulness of investment in conservation is reinforced when smaller, realistic goals are achieved. Those positive experiences then reinforce the support and commitment of the wider public and public service.
Unfortunately, Predator Free 2050 is an impossible policy goal being communicated with extremist language. Compared to other government policies, Predator Free 2050 and its promotion poses a reputational risk to the wider conservation movement. We could do much-much better for biodiversity and the New Zealand public.
- Bell M. (2016) Accelerating Predator free New Zealand. Minute of Cabinet Decision. p. 110. Wellington, New Zealand. https://fyi.org.nz/request/4307/response/14723/attach/3/Spnog0116090814360.pdf