What is biodiversity?

The United Nations have declared the year 2010 as the International Year of Biodiversity. This Monday a big biodiversity conference starts in Nagoya, Japan, in order for countries to define and agree upon a combined strategy to slow the decline.

Ahead of the meeting interesting studies were published surveying Earth’s total marine biodiversity – or the extinction threats to plant life.

Biodiversity loss is however not something you can tackle directly, like a food shortage, a banking crisis or even CO2 emissions.

The increased extinction rate of species worldwide is the result of all the combined stresses we place on the natural environment. Many of these driving forces are only forecast to increase, like climate change and ocean acidification, with even the main underlying factors, like global population growth, energy consumption and demand for (more luxurious) food, nowhere near a decline.

The one key factor that is relatively easy to single out is tropical deforestation – as tropical rainforests are the richest hotspots of terrestrial biodiversity. However, as long as deforestation is not completely stopped, it will continue to contribute to the overall species decline.

(UN ambition – under the proposed UNFCCC climate treaty, net deforestation is also an important contributor to rising CO2 levels – isn’t really high, proposing only to halve global deforestation by 2020 – shying away from setting a tough target for really preserving what is left. Halving deforestation rates can still lead to total deforestation of for instance the Congo, or Borneo, over time.)

So instead of actually trying to solve the biodiversity crisis in the year of biodiversity, the actual attention lies much more on awareness, communication, establishing baselines or oiling the Framework Convention, to say the same thing in UN speak.

The environmental community is oddly realistic about this, and also hoping to take the matter step by step. The one easy challenge for the year 2010 would be to define biodiversity and increase international awareness, not just politically, but also amongst the public. Biodiversity proves peculiarly hard to explain.

In fact one could argue that the main reason for instance climate change ‘is bad’ is because of its detrimental effect on biodiversity (mostly by disturbing entire ecosystems). Socioeconomic consequences of climate change will of course be felt – perhaps much more so than many realize – but after all humans are quite resilient, as we are the only species that actually (sort of) know what’s going on – capable of defining a strategy to adapt. Compare this to our Borneo tree-based cousin Orang Utan – and you suddenly realise retardation does in fact run through the family.

So, are us green science communicators doing a good job? Apparently, no. Today BBC posted the results of a survey the University of Cumbria held among British people, asking the simple question ‘do you know what biodiversity is?’

Some kind of washing powder,’ the majority guessed.

So, where to really start?

Biodiversity is of course easily defined as the entirety of all of life and its biological systems.

It includes everything from fungi and slime moulds to 180 ton blue whales. [Speaking of the latter: don’t you feel honoured to happen to live in exactly the same era as the biggest creature Earth’s evolution has ever produced since the formation of a crust allowed biogenesis, some 3.5 to 4 billion years ago?] The number of organisms alive today is estimated to range from 4 to 40 million different life forms. Including the broader boundaries of life, some define the range of biodiversity as stretching from DNA up to the level of ecosystems, which are of course themselves interlinked, as part of system Earth.

However overwhelming the numbers, this definition of biodiversity does not explain its significance equally well – as to most it remains abstract – and largely without the moral component we seek to understand its value.

It may therefore be useful to define not only an ecological, but also an ethical definition of biodiversity.

If one would state that actually nothing has more value than life, the value of all of life is practically invaluable. From that point of view the high biodiversity, more so than our lifeless resources, form the biggest richness of Earth. Loss of biodiversity would be a loss of core value – and simply undesirable.

It may be a useful consideration for the BBC respondents in their year of biodiversity.

© Rolf Schuttenhelm | www.bitsofscience.org

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