This guest blog was originally posted in The Corporate Social Responsibility Newswire, CSRwire on October 16, 2014.

Conservation International Gives Nature a Voice-Literally

When Peter Seligmann says, “First get their attention! Then make it really personal!” he sounds less like Chairman and CEO of the global not-for-profit Conservation International and more like Rocky Balboa describing his strategy for winning the fight of his life. But then, Seligmann believes that we are in a fight for our lives, and like Rocky, he hopes that we’ll wake up when we see just what is at stake.

This is a change in direction for Conservation International that left its staff at odds for more than a year. The internal battle that they fought is one they are asking us to take up now: “Get people to see the effects of their destructive actions on themselves.” This required CI to let go of some long-held assumptions and deeply question a path that was not leading to the fulfillment of their larger mission.

Why the change? What was wrong with their almost 30-year strategy of imploring us to Save the Planet, the Forests, and the Oceans? Seligmann and CI Executive Vice President and Senior Scientist, Dr. M. Sanjayan, told me bluntly in a recent interview, “It was not working.” Companies heard them, but not citizens. When it came to caring for Earth, they were successful with businesses, but they were getting ahead of customers.

To wake up customers, CI sought help from the premiere company in the world in the business of getting and keeping people’s attention—Apple. With the help of board member Laurene Powell Jobs, CI connected with Lee Clow, the creative genius responsible for Apple’s “1984” and “Think Different” campaigns. He posed the big question that changed CI’s direction, “What is the message you want to give?”

Seligmann’s answer was, “Nature has a message we need to hear! Nature doesn’t need people. People need nature!” Ouch! Harsh! Maybe so, but this is the no–holds-barred social media campaign that was launched to get your attention and make it personal, to get you to take climate change and environmental destruction personally and make it your responsibility to make a difference.

CI noticed a few years ago that business was picking up the challenge and making big  efforts to shift their impact on the planet. “Nature’s speaking and Starbucks is listening by going to one hundred percent sustainably sourced coffee. Nature’s speaking and Wal-Mart is listening by going with sustainable certified fish,” Sanjayan says, pushing both hands in the air to emphasize the message. “Individuals are not listening. We have to change that.”

The new campaign is employing a star-studded cast. CI has enlisted a list of celebrities that includes Julia Roberts as the voice of Mother Earth and Harrison Ford as the voice of an Ocean so sternly reprimanding that he left me feeling like a very disrespectful child who would shortly be punished for refusing to listen to my elders.

That is the point. First get their attention. Then make it personal.

But will this strategy work? Based on my experience as a business educator and writer about responsible behavior, I wondered if this was enough—and was it even the right tack? My first question was, “Do scare tactics and admonishment work?” Does making us feel like bad children get us to care or believe that we can do anything to create change? Some research shows that it may not.

Climate Talk, a research group with expertise on the issue of getting people to pay attention to climate change, offers this insight:

Unless carefully used in a message that contains constructive advice and a personal and direct link with the individual, fear is likely to trigger barriers to engagement with climate change, such as denial. Similarly, studies have shown that guilt can play a role in motivating people to take action but can also function to stimulate defensive mechanisms against the perceived threat or challenge to one’s sense of identity (as a good, moral person). In the latter case, behaviors may be left untouched (whether driving a SUV or taking a flight) as people defend themselves against any feelings of guilt or complicity through deployment of a range of justifications for the behavior.

My second question was, “Aren’t humans also nature?” Maybe we incorrectly see ourselves as separate and not as one species like all others in the great living firmament. As part of the whole, doesn’t our species have a role to play, in the same way that each individual human does within his or her family?

Regenesis Group, a community and economic development consultancy, has successfully developed the case that humans can quickly learn to change their behaviors and make interventions that will create real change. Pamela Mang, a founding partner, says that “helping people connect with the story of their place evokes caring, and once they care, they are rapidly able to identify and take on roles to help regenerate the health of their communities and the larger living systems in which they are nested.”

Regenesis cites Kat Anderson’s research, published in Tending the Wild. “Native Americans in California, through extensive practical experience, found a ‘middle way’ between exploitation of the land and hands-off preservation of the land. They made use of the land, and in so doing, made the land better for all other creatures as well. They used resources, but managed to give back more. And in so doing, they shaped California.”

I asked Seligmann and Sanjayan about these arguments. They said that they do not disagree with them and  know that they have next-steps work to do. But, they feel strongly—and research agrees with them—that people don’t see the need to make sacrifices, and they believe that you have to start there. Trend Watching says that the next big question for brands to ask their consumers is, “What are you willing to sacrifice? Businesses cannot do it for you!”

So maybe the message is this: Nature does not need you to survive, but you play a role in our wholeness as a system and you have not been holding up your end. Even so, you can now make a profoundly meaningful contribution, if you will see the whole of the story and join us.

First, get their attention. Make it personal. Awake caring and help people understand the roles they have to play. That is a complete motivation cycle that cannot fail when it’s fully brought about.

What do you think, Julia Roberts—I mean, Mother Earth? Are we in this together?