I’ve had enough of ‘biodiversity’

Posted on July 5, 2012

I’ve had enough of bland statements about ‘biodiversity’.

This week I was at a meeting at the offices of an environmental NGO. “We don’t have much nature left in our country,” said a senior member of staff, “but we have a lot of biodiversity.”

Reflecting on that statement later, I couldn’t help but think – what on earth is that all supposed to mean? Is ‘a lot of biodiversity’ supposed to be a good thing even when we have no nature left – whatever is supposed to be meant by ‘nature’? Why is ‘biodiversity’ good – good for what? How much of it is good? In what situations? Does biodiversity have the same meaning, or the same importance, when we’re talking about the Amazon forests as when we’re talking about a city park or a cultivated agricultural landscape. Is is really so inanely simple that more is always better and that we should be fighting for and can be proud of the simplistic notion of just having ‘more biodiversity’?

Sadly, biodiversity has become degraded to a catch all term bandied about by conservationists to justify everything from saving the tiger from extinction; to the re-introduction of species for no better reason that they used to be there in some previous age; to the encouragement of more critters into city parks. There seems to be insufficient attempt in the public debate to go beyond the bland ‘biodiversity is good’ statements to more considered explanations about good for what and for whom, in what circumstances, and in what quantities depending on these different circumstances. In which situations do attempts at increasing biodiversity provide sufficient benefit to justify the cost and in which do they not?

If conservationists wish to win the argument and gain more widespread support, then they need to move beyond biodiversity as a catch-all term used as a comfort blanket to justify any and all forms of conservation activity and start providing much finer levels of explanation. Failure to do so will, over time, lead to an unfortunate erosion of credibility and influence.

Nobody Cares About “Biodiversity”

The Renaissance writer Michel de Montaigne said “the only things I find rewarding…are variety and the enjoyment of diversity”. Some conservationists seize on this statement as support for the idea that diversity is good. But that misses a crucial point. Montaigne did not find diversity rewarding but rather ‘the enjoyment of diversity’. And so it is with biodiversity. Nobody cares about biodiversity but they may well care about the specific consequences of biodiversity – consequences that they may enjoy. For this reason, I believe it is time to move beyond the abstract (and largely unsellable) concept of biodiversity to focus on its consequences.

The objective of a conservation project may be to enhance biodiversity in such a way as to maintain purity of water supply; or to build natural protection against disaster; or to maintain sustainable resources for local communities; or for other reasons such as the enhancement of leisure activities or even the enhancement of national and cultural pride. Such work is much more likely to be well received and command widespread support if it is clear that these are the ultimate benefits that are being sought not the catch-all ‘preservation of biodiversity’.

There are many benefits to arise from the preservation of biodiversity. However, these are not uniform and a catch-all approach that suggests that more is always better will erode credibility and, ultimately, popular and political support. Add to this the fact that most people do not have a clue what on earth ‘biodiversity’ means anyway, and I would like to suggest that the days of campaigns blandly targeted at preserving biodiversity are all but over.

It’s time to move beyond biodiversity to communicating clearly – and with credibility – the consequences of biodiversity that people are trying to preserve and enhance. These consequences will be different in different circumstances. Biodiversity will, consequently, have different levels of importance in different situations. To enhance the chances of success, let’s move beyond the monoculture of ‘biodiversity’ to the rich, multifaceted and diverse consequences that we are trying to achieve.