for many freshwater habitats in both temperate and subtropical areas is, if anything, worse (Dudgeon et al., 2005; International Union for the Conservation of Nature, 2007). Marine ecosystems have likewise suffered from devastating reductions in fisheries (Crutzen, 2002) and the degradation of >50% for most coral reef systems (Pandolfi et al., 2005). At the same time, there is even less investment in study and conservation of marine habitats than in terrestrial ones (Hendriks et al., 2007).
The obvious question, then, is why has a massive, international effort to deal with the biodiversity crisis failed to launch? Much of the current stasis is ascribed to the antagonism of corporate interests and lack of vision, and even resistance, of leaders and governments (Biodiversity Project, 2002; Shellenberger and Nordhaus, 2007). Accepting these as factors does not, however, obviate the need for broader and deeper public understanding. The “power of the people” is well demonstrated as the primary force behind new, more enlightened, measures by governments and corporations. Conversely, if a lack of public understanding or concern persists, it is highly unlikely that either governments or businesses will change course.
So, what can we now do to improve the situation? Scientists are obviously a critical part of any effort, because they continually improve the database for both species diversity and loss and thereby provide an ever clearer picture of the scientific realities of the biodiversity crisis. However, given the urgent and serious nature of biodiversity degradation, scientists also must have a voice in a dialogue that fosters broad public interest, commitment, and engagement. Here, I further probe the current state of public awareness of the biodiversity crisis, describe the challenges to achieving broad-based effective engagement on the issue, and offer further suggestions for dealing with these challenges.
To engage people in environmental issues such as the biodiversity crisis, one has to inspire a connection with nature. That linkage should be built from a clear and compelling message about the importance of biodiversity and what we risk in depleting it. However, these are only the first stages of a strategy that leads to engagement. As various dictionaries define the word, “engage” also means to develop meaningful connections with others; to bring into association or aid; or to attract, hold, or draw others into some agreed-upon action or service. It is clear that much of the effort to generate interest in environmental problems stops short of a follow-through that could be characterized as engagement. Surveys on “green” consumerism (Hartman Report, 1996) have shown that environmental awareness does not necessarily affect behavior and purchases.