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What do we mean by ‘biodiversity’?

  • by JW

‘Biodiversity’ functions as a useful umbrella term that sounds more scientific than a word such as ‘nature’. [‘Review of The Idea of Biodiversity: Philosophies of Paradise’]


We think we know what we mean by the term ‘biodiversity’ – but dig a little deeper into the multi-layered world that it is and it gets rather interesting…

Defining ‘biodiversity’ in Devon;

To try and get to a definition, it might be helpful to look at specific examples of where it is used.

Looking at the Devon landscape, there’s the question of whether sheep and biodiversity are a good mix – and whether solar farms, grazing animals and biodiversity offer an opportunity for multiple uses.

In the even wider context of climate change, there is the promise of nature-based solutions for Devon and the impact on the environment of the policy of planting lots more trees in the county.

Then there is the poster-species of biodiversity in Devon – namely the reintroduction of the beaver and “whether the greater good of the environment is really served by channelling so much conservation money into one species”.

Other controversies include exchanging a piece of green space in Exeter for a solar farm, the challenges of engaging with South West Water across the region, and how to manage wildlife in cemeteries.

Finally, there are several very solid bodies at work in the county looking at (and thereby ‘defining’) biodiversity – from the Devon Local Nature Partnership (“a voluntary strategic collaboration of a huge range of organisations, groups and individuals committed to working together to restore Devon’s natural environment for people, wildlife and business”) to the efforts of the District Council and the County Council.

And there is of course the Devon Wildlife Trust (“the only charity that exists to protect all wildlife in Devon and to safeguard Devon’s unique natural environment”), the likes of the Devon Hedge Group (“Protecting and promoting Devon’s world-class hedges”) and…

The Devon Biodiversity Record Centre: DBRC – Keeping track of the wildlife in Devon

‘Biodiversity’: it’s complicated:

You might think that providing a definition of ‘biodiversity’ is pretty straightforward – and, indeed, the WWF, National Geographic, Wikipedia and even the likes of the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy all give excellent definitions.

Here’s the interesting definition from Stanford, which shows the history of the definition and where it’s likely to be going…

The term “biodiversity” is a contraction of “biological diversity” or “biotic diversity”. These terms all refer to the idea of living variation, from genes and traits, to species, and to ecosystems. The popular contraction “biodiversity” came about in the mid-1980s, heralded by a symposium in 1986 and an influential follow-up book, Biodiversity (Wilson 1988). These events often are interpreted as the beginning of the biodiversity story, but this mid-1980s activity actually was both a nod to important past work, and a launching of something quite new, in ways not fully anticipated...

The new term “biodiversity” energised some fundamental ideas developed over the previous decade (or longer). Precursor terms like “biotic diversity” had helped to communicate why we should be concerned about the loss of variety, arising from the species extinction crisis (later, the “biodiversity crisis”). This recognised the idea that living variation itself has current value, because it provides the opportunity for future benefits for humanity… This value of living variation complements recognised values of individual species, and it accords with the idea that “biodiversity” may refer both to the collection of individual species (or other units), and to amount-of-variation as a property of that collection…

While the policy context for conservation of biodiversity has maintained a core focus on variety, the more academic discussions are harder to pin down. Philosophical discussions about “biodiversity” illustrate the current lack of academic consensus on fundamental issues, including biodiversity’s definition, its value, and even its history. Increased popularity of the term among academics has amounted to decreased clarity of the term. If we look under “Definition of biodiversity” in the Encyclopedia of Biodiversity, we find that “An unequivocal, precise, and generally accepted definition of biodiversity does not exist” (Swingland 2013). The recent book, Defending Biodiversity (Newman, Varner, & Linquist 2017) has the premise that it will be impossible to ever settle on a definition. This entry therefore will focus on these fundamental issues concerning biodiversity’s definitions and values. The particular focus is on the concept of variety (rather than the definition and value of individual elements such as species)…

As the Stanford piece suggests, it’s complicated. And an interesting article published just this week from Washington State University’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources looks at the issues:

In a 2012 book, Donald Maier asked, “What’s so good about biodiversity?” He describes how difficult it is to critique principles of biodiversity because all the value of the natural world has been bestowed on the term. It doesn’t help that biodiversity also gets tangled up with human diversity issues. Nevertheless, critique must be done...

The Diversity of Biodiversity Meanings

“Biodiversity is everything.” In popular use, the term is often used as a catch-all for all the organisms in a place. This use has nothing to do with the actual diversity of the organisms or species other than noting that life is diverse almost everywhere. This “everything” biodiversity is used to move people to action; “Save the earth’s biodiversity.” This is the biodiversity movement, the Cause, where the term originated, and conservation of biodiversity is the goal here. 

“Biodiversity” functions as a useful umbrella term that sounds more scientific than a word such as “nature.” – Burlingame, 1999

The meaning that I want to address is that of the diversity of species. This is most often measured by the number of species, termed richness, but can also be the relative abundance of species in a population (evenness)…

Meanwhile, back in Devon, here’s a pretty provocative look at how to define ‘biodiversity’ from a local wildlife photographer:

Can you measure the biodiversity of an ecosystem? It’s as difficult as understanding what someone’s thinking by looking at a brain scan. My local wildlife charity uses the word biodiversity all the time. It’s usually used when they want volunteers for wildlife gardening. It’s often because they want to do some ‘habitat management’. It’s also usually because they want to have another species of butterfly. Wildlife charities are often run by people who are fixated and obsessed with rarities. A classic example is the ‘Devon Special Species’ initiative, where a group of well-meaning but horribly misled rarity fetishists ignore the need for wide restoration of the natural world and instead spend their time on ‘ticks’ of ‘nationally rare’ species. Many of these species are common elsewhere, including just over man-made borders in mainland Europe. Why spend thousands of pounds on wildlife gardening for a few species when we could be seizing land and leaving it alone?

Tropical rainforests cover 10% of the Earth and yet have 90% of the species. Conservation organisations should be campaigning to ban the import of meat and palm oil from tropical areas. Not gardening for butterflies.

Defining ‘biodiversity’ in the Sid Valley:

As for how ‘biodiversity’ is defined and addressed in Sidmouth, there is the Sidmouth Town Council Environment Policy, the Sid Valley Neighbourhood Plan’s green corridor policy, the SVNP’s specific call to create a Biodiversity Action Plan – and the setting up in 2020 of the Sid Valley Biodiversity Group, which then put together its biodiversity plan for the Sid Valley.

To finish, then, here’s the SVBG’s definition:

Biodiversity stands for biological diversity and refers to the variety of life on earth as a whole or in a given area, such as the Sid Valley. The future of the planet depends upon a balanced, interdependent mosaic of habitats where living organisms interact with the physical environment. The air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat all rely upon a rich diversity of life.