Conservation Without Money Can Be Possible


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Although markets are the primary mechanism for the efficient allocation of resources in modern society, their failure to fully capture the value of the world’s biodiversity and natural resources has been a key factor underpinning biodiversity loss and environmental degradation (Tietenberg & Lewis 2006). Therefore, intervention is necessary to counteract these trends and meet conservation objectives. Such interventions can be divided into three broad categories: laws and regulations, financial incentives, and voluntary measures (Kauneckis & York 2009). Cost is a key consideration when selecting and implementing interventions: the funds available to achieve conservation are limited, and often fall short of what is needed to meet global objectives (James et al. 1999). Therefore, if funding requirements can be minimised where possible, then available resources for conservation can be targeted to where they are needed most, maximising efficiency.

Out of the three classes of conservation interventions, voluntary measures are the least costly. In particular, voluntary non-monetary approaches consider actions that individuals or organisations can voluntarily undertake to advance conservation that will not require monetary compensation, therefore appealing to motives other than financial gain (Kauneckis & York 2009; de Snoo et al. 2012). If successful, voluntary non-monetary approaches could deliver conservation initiatives at a fraction of the cost of laws, regulations or financial incentives, since they theoretically require minimal enforcement, monitoring or sanctions (Kauneckis & York 2009). Therefore, this opens the possibility for advancing conservation without funding, and as such, could reward further exploration. In this essay, I will consider why voluntary non-monetary measures might be preferred as an intervention, what factors influence their success, and how they can be implemented.

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Why Use Voluntary Non-Monetary Measures?

Although measures based on regulation or financial incentives are widespread in conservation, they may not always be sustainable. For example, conservation of semi-natural habitat in Europe is dominated by agri-environment schemes (AES), involving short-term payments to farmers in return for environmentally friendly land management (de Snoo et al. 2012). It has been argued that because payments are temporary, and do not require farmers to be invested in their land or understand why the prescribed actions are desirable, they are unlikely to cause long-lasting behavioural changes among farmers (de Snoo et al. 2012). If the incentives should ever stop, so will the behaviour: real change must come from a change in the values and attitudes the farmers hold (de Snoo et al. 2012).

Moreover, the groups targeted by interventions may not always be motivated by money, making financial incentives ineffective or even counterproductive. People may wish to contribute to conservation efforts without any expectation of external reward. Surveys of farmers in Australia found that a sense of duty or stewardship for their land was a stronger motive for conducting environmentally friendly practices than any economic or social consideration (Greiner & Gregg 2011). More generally, many studies have identified the existence of an intrinsic motivation to support conservation efforts, where people engage in pro-environmental behaviours because of the inherent satisfaction they gain from doing so (Steg 2016). People who strongly value nature or altruism are more likely to enjoy contributing to conservation, and so are more motivated to act (Ryan & Deci 2000; Steg 2016). Moreover, there is experimental evidence to suggest that if people can be encouraged to adopt a pro-environmental behaviour because of an inherent desire to help, rather than due to financial incentives, they may then be more likely to act pro-environmentally in other areas as well (Evans et al. 2013). It is this intrinsic motivation that is targeted by voluntary non-monetary approaches to conservation (Kauneckis & York 2009).

Although intrinsic motivations for conservation are frequently attributed to a desire to act altruistically (Steg 2016), there are other reasons why people may engage in pro-environmental behaviours without immediate financial incentives. People may also act to support conservation if they believe that it will be good for their reputation (Griskevicius et al. 2010). In experiments where people had to choose between environmentally friendly and standard versions of products, participants were more likely to choose the `greener` products in scenarios where status was more important and when they were making the choice in public (Griskevicius et al. 2010).

The same principle applies for businesses as well as individuals. While businesses are unlikely to act against their economic self-interest, they may voluntarily improve their environmental performance in order to enhance their image, in an example of `enlightened self-interest` (Andrews 1998). However, the motivations for businesses to participate in voluntary schemes may not always align with conservation objectives. Businesses may participate in these schemes in the hope that this will prevent implementation of stricter regulations that would make costs of non-compliance much greater, or to hide their own poor environmental performance (Rivera & de Leon 2004).

Where people are intrinsically motivated to support conservation efforts, financial incentives can have undesirable consequences by `crowding out` these non-monetary motivations, which has been observed frequently in conservation (Rode et al. 2015). Consequently, people come to expect an economic benefit from an action that they would previously have done without any compensation (Rode et al. 2015). For example, using agri-environment schemes to encourage farmers to put up nest boxes in Finland has meant farmers no longer do this because it is a social norm, but instead because they expect compensation (Herzon & Mikk 2007). Several mechanisms have been suggested for this phenomenon: for example, people may feel frustrated that they are no longer trusted to do the right thing on their own, and receiving payment may reduce the satisfaction gained from performing the action (Bowles 2008; Rode et al. 2015). This suggests there will be situations where voluntary non-monetary measures to advance conservation should be preferred over other types of intervention, because this approach will preserve existing intrinsic motivations.

Opportunities Voluntary Non-Monetary Measures

The potential for more cost-effective conservation, the existence of intrinsic pro-environmental motivations and the dangers of crowding out, all point towards a need for voluntary non-monetary methods in conservation. Despite this, they have received little research attention compared to approaches based on regulation or financial incentives (Fig. 1), and it is likely that they are currently under-utilised (Santangeli et al. 2016). A review of farmland management actions supported by economic incentives in Europe found that for many of these actions, a voluntary non-monetary approach would have been a feasible way to achieve the same outcomes (Santangeli et al. 2016).

Another significant opportunity is presented by wildlife gardening. In the UK, domestic gardens represent an important resource for biodiversity (Davies et al. 2009). Surveys have found that the most commonly reported motives for wildlife gardening are benefits for personal well-being and a moral duty to care for nature, and as a result, community-based projects that inform, empower and engage residents to voluntarily enhance their gardens for wildlife may be the most effective way to encourage further uptake (Goddard et al. 2013).

Implementing Conservation Interventions Without Funding

Despite the lack of research into voluntary non-monetary measures, particularly around impact evaluation, their popularity has been increasing (Santangeli et al. 2012, 2016). However, evidence for their effectiveness has been mixed, and the extent to which they can achieve conservation objectives in practice is debated (Wiley et al. 2008; Kauneckis & York 2009). Some insights into the factors affecting the success of these measures can be gained from looking at the findings from the rare cases where they have been evaluated.

In certain instances, systems that initially appeared to be ideal for a non-monetary approach have failed to deliver. For example, it was suggested that management of whale watching tours, with their focus on charismatic species that attract strong public emotions, and their connection to education and conservation programmes, could be achieved by voluntary agreements (Wiley et al. 2008). Off the northeast coast of the United States, tour operators entered into a voluntary agreement to restrict their speed within a certain distance of whales, to minimise disturbance to the animals (Wiley et al. 2008). However, when boat speeds were measured, compliance levels were consistently low, and the programme failed to meet its objectives (Wiley et al. 2008). One possible explanation for the lack of success could be the difficulty in measuring the outcomes of the voluntary action: it could be hard for tour operators to see the benefits of restricting speeds in terms of improved whale well-being (Santangeli et al. 2016), especially since it could take a long time for the agreement to make an observable difference to whale populations.

However, there are cases where voluntary approaches have been effectively used to meet conservation objectives without funding. When forest landowners in Finland were asked to set aside forest buffers around raptor nests on their land during clear cutting operations, although no financial incentive was provided, participation levels were high, resulting in a significant reduction in nest losses (Santangeli et al. 2012). One possible reason why this scheme worked was that because each landowner had raptor nests within their land, they felt responsible for `their` nest, and could easily see the difference that their actions made (Santangeli et al. 2012). Moreover, the fact that landowners were closely involved in the scheme’s design appeared to foster positive attitudes towards the programme, encouraging higher participation (Santangeli et al. 2012).

By comparing the characteristics of schemes with varying levels of success, researchers can start making recommendations about best practice in designing voluntary non-monetary approaches. The examples discussed above highlight the need for the targeted action to generate observable and quantifiable outcomes within a short timeframe, so participants can see their impact, and for participants to be involved in planning and implementation of these schemes (Santangeli et al. 2012, 2016). It is also suggested that the actions should be clearly defined and simple to perform, not requiring specialised knowledge or equipment, and that the costs of participating should be low enough that financial incentives are not required (Santangeli et al. 2016).

Other useful insights may be found in areas beyond conservation. One possibility which is increasingly widely adopted for encouraging behaviour change in other disciplines, is the `nudge` approach (Halpern 2016). A `nudge` involves altering the way a choice is structured or contextualised to cause someone’s behaviour to change in a predictable way, based on pre-existing cognitive biases or habits associated with decision making (Hansen 2016). For example, when one option in a choice is presented as the default, people will be more likely to choose that option, so presenting an environmentally-friendly option as the default could encourage pro-environmental behaviour (Mackay et al. 2018). Small changes to peoples’ environments can also nudge them in a particular direction: for instance, painting footprints on the ground leading to bins has been associated with reduced littering (Ly et al. 2013). Nudges have so far rarely been used in conservation, but with careful design and monitoring, they have the potential to be a useful feature of voluntary non-monetary schemes (Mackay et al. 2018).


Money will always be necessary to advance conservation: financial gain remains an important motivator for individuals and businesses (Andrews 1998), and even voluntary `non-monetary` approaches still require some funding: for example, to provide information and educational material to participants (Kauneckis & York 2009). Despite this, the examples discussed above indicate there could be many environmental issues that can be addressed with minimal funding via voluntary measures. Therefore, the use of voluntary non-monetary approaches represents a neglected opportunity for conservation (Santangeli et al. 2016). Moreover, lasting success in conservation will depend on people reconnecting with nature, to the benefit of both the environment and human well-being (Miller 2005; McCauley 2006; Hartig et al. 2014). If more people feel connected to nature, this could increase levels of intrinsic motivation for conservation, and therefore support for voluntary non-monetary measures (Steg 2016).

However, taking advantage of this opportunity may require major changes to the culture of conservation research: the discourse around policy instruments for conservation is dominated by regulatory and incentive-based measures (Pirard 2012; Kamal et al. 2015). Continuing to build the evidence base for how, where and why voluntary non-monetary measures can work may help meet this challenge. The lack of impact evaluation for interventions has been identified as a significant shortcoming of conservation in general (Miteva et al. 2012; Baylis et al. 2016). Addressing this gap may go some way to better demonstrating the potential for advancing conservation without funding, along with close interdisciplinary collaboration and stakeholder involvement (Santangeli et al. 2016).

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