In his 93 years, the famous British naturalist David Attenborough has visited almost every place on earth, exploring the wild pristine nature, telling fascinating stories. “A life on our planet”, is his latest documentary, where he reflects on his life looking back at defining moments and the changes he has seen in nature and the wildlife through the years. Talking to policymakers and economists at the World Economic Forum 2020, he repeated  a warning: if continuing maintaining the lifestyle that we have, we face species extinction and a severe biodiversity loss.

The images of his last documentary are beautiful and shocking at the same time! It moves emotions and triggers the intention to change our lifestyle towards “a better one”…, but then, we forgot after two days. And what about politicians and policymakers – What happens after speeches like the one from David Attenborough?

For over 50 years, global environmental policies have not been successful to prevent biodiversity loss, and safeguard ecosystem functions and services 1. However, the failure to halt biodiversity loss is not only due to missing global and national policies. Failure also is the result of a lack of specific indicators and intervention actions that directly address the drivers of change and lead to actions 2.

The responsibility of the individual

Our individual behavior is responsible for most of the environmental problems and biodiversity conservation challenges2,3. The accumulation of individual effects and collective decisions such as consumption behavior and lifestyle have a major negative impact on biodiversity and ecosystems. Thus, visions for halting biodiversity loss and effective nature conservation actions should focus on integrating behavioral change theories.

One of the biggest drivers of biodiversity loss is the consumption of animal-sourced food which directly affect the conservation of terrestrial ecosystems 4. Livestock production is the largest driver of habitat loss by increasing agricultural areas mostly in tropical areas within biodiversity hotspots.  To reduce the impacts of animal product consumption while meeting the need to feed a world growing population several propositions are recognized to be necessary. 1) Reduce the demand for animal-based food products, 2) increase proportions of plant-based foods in diets, 3) replacing ecologically inefficient ruminants (e.g. cattle, sheep) with monogastrics (e.g poultry), 4) integrate aquaculture or more efficient protein sources and 5) changing intensive, fossil fuel-based systems into diverse coupled systems that conserve energy and nutrients4.

While some of these decisions are in the hands of policymakers, others are in the hands of the individual that contribute to negative impacts by his consumption behavior. However, to change a behavior is challenging and more complex than making a resolution become reality.

When discussing our behavior and behavior change, it is worth looking at a theory from the field of psychology: The theory of the default bias (or status quo bias) is defined as the phenomenon that humans have a non-rational preference for the status quo, basically, doing nothing or not choosing as a valid choice 5. Even facing very simple choices, at our daily life, such as too many varieties of cereals in the supermarket, the one we buy is what we always have done rather than trying something new. One explanation is that a status quo is attributed to a natural fear of change and alternatives are uncertain, costly and in need to be discovered. However, changes happen all the time and humans learnt to adapt to them. Therefore, to embrace a change e.g. towards our buying more sustainable products, would needs some prerequisites. We must not let the comfortable attachments to the norm prevent us  from changing5. Then, what are the tools that could support us in making decisions, when we do not manage to take them alone?

The Behavior Change Wheel

The Behavior Change Wheel by Michie et al. 2011

In the past, behavior change models were applied mainly in the field of psychology, public health or social studies to improve health and environmental conditions 6–8. But behavioral science has been rarely used in conservation research2. The Behavior Change Wheel (BCW)9 is a model that was developed to characterize behavior change interventions. In the BCW, three systems interact with each other and together generate the sources of behavior change: capability, opportunity and motivation. Thereby capability is the individuals psychological and physic capacity, including knowledge and skills to engage in an activity. Motivation is the brain processes that energize our direct behavior, including habitual processes, emotional responding and analytical decisions. Last, opportunity defines all the factors that lie outside the individual, making a behavior possible or prompt it. Intervention actions surround the core of the behavior system. Any intervention could possibly change one or more behavior change functions. Policy interventions build the outer layer and surround the interventions and the systems that create our behavior. A given policy can only influence the individuals’ behavior through the interventions that they enable or support.

Assuming that solutions for conserving biodiversity lie in the change of people’s behavior, a recent study2  applied the BCW using pollinator conservation as a case study. In their gap analysis, they classified conservation actions listed in national pollinator initiatives in relation to intervention functions and policy categories of the BCW. They found 41% of all pollinator conservation actions failed on identifying and understanding whose behavior to be changed and on which interventions set the focus to maximize conservation. Most national biodiversity strategies focused on educational and structural measures, but these interventions alone are not enough effective to change environmental behavior. Authors suggest10 that it would be more effective to put a visible label for supply chains and producer principles to encourage people to buy organic and pollinator-friendly products 10. Other efficient interventions that leading to rapid behavior change are stronger financial incentives for sustainable farming and the introduction of taxes or additional costs on products to make them undesirable10. Researchers identified solutions to decrease foods environmental impacts throughout both producers and consumers11. The approach requires enabling the producers to monitor their own environmental impacts and flexibly meet environmental targets set by policy makers. The impact of the production would then be communicated up the supply chain to the end consumer of the product, e.g. with a label11. Such labels then possibly support us to overcome our default bias and make us choose more sustainable products.

Looking back at David Attenborough’s documentaries, we realize that mitigation against loss of biodiversity not only needs policymakers but also lies in every individual’s hands. To halt biodiversity loss conservation actions urgently should implement effective human behavior change theories2. The resulting interventions could support the individual choices towards “the best”, which is urgent “the more sustainable”.


1.           Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, I. Summary for policymakers of the global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services. (2019) doi:10.5281/zenodo.3553579.

2.           Marselle, M. R., Turbe, A., Shwartz, A., Bonn, A. & Colléony, A. Addressing behavior in pollinator conservation policies to combat the implementation gap. Conservation Biology n/a, (2020).

3.           Byerly, H. et al. Nudging pro-environmental behavior: evidence and opportunities. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 16, 159–168 (2018).

4.           Machovina, B., Feeley, K. J. & Ripple, W. J. Biodiversity conservation: The key is reducing meat consumption. Science of The Total Environment 536, 419–431 (2015).

5.           Tantram, J. Sustainable futures and the status quo bias. the Guardian (2013).

6.           Contzen, N. & Mosler, H.-J. The RANAS approach to systematic behavior change. 14.

7.           Chiang, N., Guo, M., Amico, K. R., Atkins, L. & Lester, R. T. Interactive Two-Way mHealth Interventions for Improving Medication Adherence: An Evaluation Using The Behaviour Change Wheel Framework. JMIR mHealth and uHealth 6, e9187 (2018).

8.           Slekiene, J. & Mosler, H.-J. The link between mental health and safe drinking water behaviors in a vulnerable population in rural Malawi. BMC Psychology 7, 44 (2019).

9.           Michie, S., van Stralen, M. M. & West, R. The behaviour change wheel: A new method for characterising and designing behaviour change interventions. Implementation Science 6, 42 (2011).

10.         Nature conservation policy rarely changes people’s behavior. ScienceDaily

11.         Poore, J. & Nemecek, T. Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers. Science 360, 987–992 (2018).

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