Is it time to kill off ‘biodiversity’?

Data from Google, graffiti on Wikipedia and a phone call with my Dad all suggest that biodiversity is not the best term to use to raise public awareness of a growing threat to our wellbeing.

“Biodiversity — what’s that?” My Dad’s question caught me off guard.

I was surprised because this was the man who had taught me the songs of the birds and the names of the trees when I was young. My Dad knows nature inside out and is happiest when he’s outside in it. Had it not been for him I probably would not have become a biologist.

“It’s the variety of life,” I answered down the phone. “All the species and all their genes and all of the variety of the world’s ecosystems — like forests and coral reefs — and how all of these things interact.” We got on to talking about the thousands of varieties of important food crops that make farmers and our food supply resilient to change, then we said our goodbyes.

After I put the phone down I regretted having used so much jargon. Biodiversity, species, genes, ecosystems — were these clunky, confusing words really necessary?

Two years ago I suggested in an IIED briefing paper (Entangled in the Web of Life: Biodiversity and the media) that journalists and experts should drop the word biodiversity entirely when talking to non-specialists. But with my Dad I had been lazy. I could have said simply that biodiversity means “nature and our place in it.”

I’m interested in how we communicate about this subject because we depend utterly on our living environment. The goods and services that nature provides us are worth billions of dollars but almost all indicators of nature’s health are in sharp decline (as outlined in the latest Global Biodiversity Outlook report).

Just one example: the wild insects and other species that pollinate the crops we eat — in a free ecological service that is worth more than US$200 billion worldwide each year — are fast declining in numbers, largely because of the pesticides we spray and the natural habitats we destroy. This is a recipe for hunger.

I’m not talking here about future generations, though they will obviously inherit whatever we bequeath. No, these and other effects are already here and now. So why isn’t this at the top of everyone’s agenda and why aren’t we doing more about it? A recent report by the consultancy Futerra bluntly blamed the way we talk about the subject:

“If current communications on biodiversity were effective, then we wouldn’t be losing so much of it.”

To raise awareness of the need to protect wild nature in order to protect ourselves, the United Nations has designated 2010 the International Year of Biodiversity (see the Facebook page here). The high point of the year comes next month, when representatives of193 governments will meet in Nagoya, Japan to try to agree on global action that could revolutionise the way we manage nature’s riches.

This won’t be cheap but it does make sense. The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity study says the benefits we gain from nature are worth 10-100 times more than what it would cost to protect the biological diversity that provides them. The kinds of action that can restore our environmental security will need lots of public funding and public support, but as Adam Vaughan at the Guardian reported on 16 September 2010:

“Just 12% of people are even aware of a major UN meeting on biodiversity next month, according to the poll for the Natural History Museum (NHM). Just 3% of the more than 1,000 people interviewed said they actually knew what the conference was about. It seems safe to say public awareness of the Convention on Biological Awareness in Nagoya [sic] – and its goal of safeguarding wildlife – is close to non-existent”.

But the meeting in Japan is not about safeguarding wildlife. It is about safeguarding humanity. This is the key point that is not being communicated well enough — that biodiversity includes us.

A few days after I read the Guardian article I saw three things that show how big the communication gap is. On 21 September, the Reuters blog mentioned surveys that show that a worrying number of people think biodiversity is “a brand of washing powder.” Later that day, I  saw this “so wat who cares” graffiti on the Wikipedia page for biodiversity (it has since been deleted).

And on the same day, The Pimm Group asked if the International Year of Biodiversity is “heading towards failure” because data from Google show that internet searches for the term ‘biodiversity’ have barely increased all year (see here).

But all this shows is that people are not very interested in or aware of the word “biodiversity“. As a Eurobarometer survey published in April 2010 showed, most Europeans simply don’t know what the word means. And why would they? It is a piece of recently-coined scientific jargon that even biologists struggle to define.

We already have a perfectly good word that means almost the same thing, has been around for hundreds of years and that everyone can relate to. That word is nature, and over the past six years, people have searched on Google for the word 23 times more often than they sought out biodiversity.

It would make sense then to use the familiar concept of nature to increase people’s understanding of the intricacies of biodiversity, but to avoid using biodiversity alone. Nature is of course a broader term, as it encompasses the non-living physical world, but the physical world is itself heavily defined by the living.

Forests breathe and sweat and affect the flow of rain that makes farming possible in many parts of the world. Mangrove swamps harbour many fish species but also form barriers along tropical coastlines that protect fishing communities from the wild sea. The number and type of species in a given place even affect how much carbon is kept out of the atmosphere, and this helps to control global temperatures.

As biologist E. O. Wilson puts it :

“If you save the living environment — the creation, the fauna and flora of the world — you will also automatically save the physical environment. But if you only save the physical environment, you will ultimately lose both. In other words, we should stop thinking about the physical environment — (the rocks, the minerals, the energy, the temperatures, and so on) — and humanity as all that counts.

Because the physical environment that we live off is created by the living environment. We are a biological species in a biological world and we live in just a very very thin layer of other living organisms — and we’d better learn how to keep those healthy and flourishing and diverse for our own good.”

And the more of it we can save the better, because a plantation is not a forest, a fish farm is not a coral reef, a sea wall is not a mangrove swamp, and what supermarkets sell us is not all that can grow in our fields.

One variety of potato may help a family survive a winter but 200 varieties — as some Peruvian farmers grow — contain the genetic diversity to withstand much of what climate change can throw at them.

All of which makes me wonder if it is time to leave biodiversity to the biologists and the technocrats, and for everyone else to get back to nature.

Hundreds of years before the word biodiversity was ever uttered, William Shakespeare wrote: “One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.

That’s a message I hope we can all live with today.

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18 Responses to Is it time to kill off ‘biodiversity’?

  1. Roger Harris says:

    Good post, Mike. You raise some interesting points. Others have highlighted lack of public awareness or even distaste for the term biodiversity. As mentioned in my post on the best biodiversity blogs (sorry not to have included yours in the list, it didn’t come up in any of my searches, nothing against you at all, I promise I’ll include you in future lists), Jennifer Frazer, a science writer living in Boulder, Colorado, dislikes the term “biodiversity” because “it turns people off to the subject” and “It’s too often used for boring platitudes about species richness.”

    That said, I disagree that we should “kill” off the term, to replace it with “nature.” (1) As you point out, nature is far more encompassing, including the abiotic world, whereas biodiversity refers to the world’s biological riches. We used to call it species richness, but that was too clumsy a term, so biodiversity was coined to replace it. The point here is that it is species that are endangered, not volcanoes or mineral deposits (which also comprise nature). By substituting nature for biodiversity you risk losing focus on what is most threatened, inspiring and important. (2) The word nature has been co-opted by organizations and businesses more interested in their own agenda than meaningful conservation of species. Adopting it as a synonym for biodiversity is just going to confuse a lot of people. (3) Many organizations and people are heavily invested in the word, hence International Year of Biodiversity. It’s the word that’s increasingly used in curricula and in the press. It’s going to be hard to shift that momentum. So two thumbs down on the idea, sorry.

    My personal view is that the fault lies with the inadequacy of the science communicator community to effectively overcome public inertia and counteracting forces, rather than the term itself — as your own quote from the Futerra report implies. (Here’s an interesting conversation discussing the efficacy of science communicators.)

    You are right of course that my Google Trends analysis of the word “biodiversity” shows only that people are not very interested in or aware of the word “biodiversity“. I don’t think I was claiming anything else, except to connect the findings to the launch of the International Year of Biodiversity and its impact (or lack thereof). But again, I don’t think that’s enough to say let’s kill the word. Indeed such a goal smacks of anti-intellectualism. Many words that were once “recently-coined scientific jargon” (e.g., ecology, environment) are now mainstream words.

    That should be the goal for those of us who love life’s biodiversity, not to kill it.

  2. Julian Cribb says:

    Couldn’t agree more, Mike. Pompous-speak is one of the singular ways that academia manages to make itself irrelevant to most human beings – and then puzzles over why they ignore it.
    To a degree this applies to the climate debate too. Climatologists often get upset when one points out that the public understands the word model to apply to a particularly svelte and rather brainless clothes horse. No wonder many people don’t trust predictions made by climate models….

  3. Bingo, Mike. It all comes down to telling an engaging story, and I’d have to agree that using “biodiversity” as the central theme of a story is not the best way to engage an audience. To compound the problem, “biodiversity” has developed a sort of white noise effect, like the word “sustainable”. Nor does it tend to crop up in cheery, uplifting contexts.
    I’ve been wrestling with this while writing about the benefits of grassland diversity for agriculture. The only way around it was to “show, not tell”, by describing how diversity works in the farmer’s favour. Although because of space constraints, “biodiverse” and “diverse” had to serve as shorthand in some cases.
    There’s a couple of issues with throwing out biodiversity, though:
    - when scientists talk in terms of “biodiversity”, they mean biodiversity, not nature.
    - “nature” is a very broad term, as you say. In some contexts it can introduce an entirely unintended “rainbows and dolphins” feel.
    I guess the trick is to use it sparingly, like asafoetida in a curry.

  4. Winnie Bird says:

    Very interesting post, Mike. I’ve thought about these same questions a lot as I struggled to understand the term more deeply and communicate it to the public over the past year. Sometimes I have the same feeling – that what we’re really talking about is saving nature, or even life. I think the abstract and scientifically chilly nature of the word make it harder for readers to quickly become emotionally moved by our pleas to “save biodiversity.” But then, I also feel that biodiversity conservation is more specific than “saving nature.” There are many kinds of nature. Can’t a weedy lot full of one or two types of invasive species be called “nature” just as fairly as a rainforest can? One may be more healthy, or productive, or stable – or biodiverse – than the other, but they are both part of nature. The term biodiversity seems to be getting at a particular aspect of nature that we value both for utilitarian and ethical reasons.

  5. Emma Brooks says:

    Very interesting blog post! I agree with you on the fact that biodiversity is not necessarily a “user-friendly” term and that it’s quite complicated to communicate about it to the greater public. I have read the work by Futerra and agree with them on the fact that so far communication about biodiversity has been too negative and has focused too much on messages of loss and devastating results. Instead I think that if we take a more positive approach we are more likely to get a response from people.

    It is interesting that you quote the Eurobarometer and low levels of awareness about what biodiversity. At the Union for Ethical BioTrade we also undertake a survey of biodiversity awareness and we have found that between 2009 and 2010 there has been an increase in the number of people who know what biodiversity is, bringing it to 60% in a total of 4 countries (UK, US, France, Germany). It also yielded very high results in Brazil and we are currently extending the survey to Asia. With the International Year of Biodiversity, we hope that next year’s results will show yet another increase in levels of awareness. You can find out more here: http://www.ethicalbiotrade.org/resources/ I think the word biodiversity doesn’t need to be written off. That being said, there probably should be a greater link made between the words biodiversity and nature.

  6. Jeremy says:

    Call it “nature” and you perpetuate the dichotomy and antagonism between agriculture and environment. It’s bad enough trying to persuade some conservationists that the food they eat needs conservation too. Put humanity into the equation by all means, make us a part of nature, and you still end up having to explain why “unnatural” biodiversity is important and possibly, in the short term, more important.

    I simply don’t buy the argument that the word we use is the problem. The problem is that we are too unused to thinking about complexity, too ready to look for simple solutions and, especially in the west, simply too short-sighted.

    We do need to tell better stories, and those stories need to connect the dots more and better.

  7. Roger Harris says:

    Good discussion!

    One point from my earlier comment I’d like to emphasize is the fact that many words once used only by specialists and considered jargon are now mainstream. For example, “ecology” was coined in 1873. “Antibiotic” has been with us since 1894. Such words presumably baffled many non-scientists of the time, but now they’re widely understood and no-one is proposing substituting them.

    “Biodiversity” has been with us since 1985. Twenty-five years on, it might too early to say that it won’t become more widely accepted and understood. (I’m guessing the examples took several decades to enter the common parlance.) But that will take the community of scientists and science communicators to stand solidly behind their terminology and to be willing to explain it when needed — whether or not such explanations must dwell on the negativity of the situation.

    Perhaps the present crisis will drive the paradigm shift in public consciousness to make more of an effort to understand the word and appreciate its meaning.

  8. Peter Bridgewater says:

    well all this does is reinforce the point that the term is not really used as it was apparently intended, and as it has been defined by the Convention. Biodiversity is used almost interchangeably with species richness – but as defined its about the hierarchy from genes to ecosystems and landscapes. And species richness often degenerates to birds and colorful flowers, even among scientists who should know better. By so doing we devalue all the intellectual and scientific value in the term – its not nature, nor wildlife, nor natural history.. Nor is it just conservation – its that + sustainable use and benefit sharing. If Nagoya managed to come up with better communication strategies then it will be worth its while, but i’m not holding my breath.

    by the way, when you move away from species richness, and species being the obvious things we as a species seem to like, biodiversity is not necessarily concentrated in tropical forests – for example microbial diversity is highest in the far northern/southern regions of the plant, and lower in the tropical regions. And many species rich parts of the world have very low genetic diversity within those species. And ecosystem diversity in the “boring” boreal forests is way higher than in tropical forests. Problem is, these are not places that have attracted NGO or even most scientific focus, and so not development money….
    So what if biodiversity, in its full use of the term, were actually the same across all the earth? then our task is even more urgent and important….
    one final point – our language needs to improve – if we talk about biodiversity change (including loss) instead of loss we have a more accurate, less despairing picture. if we talk about preservation it sounds like we are making biodiversity marmalade, so let’s talk about conservation – or even management. We don’t any more have the luxury of pretending we are not or cannot be involved in biodiversity management, however uncomfortable that sounds. lets also reconnect to traditional and Indigenous knowledge in this – their languages are far more flexible than Indoeurpean ones….
    ok that’s enough rant, i need my coffee, (yes i know biodiversity again) but we have a big task ahead im afraid..

  9. BrusselsBloke says:

    You’ve nicely caught some of the problems with the word. A further problem is the “diversity” bit. “Biodiveristy” makes it easy to think we’re just talking about numbers of species. Biodiveristy’s not only about diversity. It’s also about flows and relationships, co-evolution and extended genotypes. It’s about complexity, feedback and emergence. It’s about ecosystems – which is another word that glazes eyes in an instant.

    I don’t like the word. On the one hand it’s too technocratic and on the other it’s blobby, opaque and off-putting. My boss thinks biodiversity is about saving beetles and butterflies, at the expense of more grown-up passtimes like making money, and it makes no difference however often I explain. The word gets in the way. I don’t like “nature” for Jeremy’s reason; I prefer “life on Earth and the processes that sustain it,” even if that is a bit long-winded.

  10. mikeshanahan says:

    Thanks everyone for all of the comments so far. I aimed to be provocative with my post and I’m glad to see there has been plenty of discussion about the term biodiversity. I am not really advocating its total extinction (hence the question mark in the title) — just that I think we need better ways to get people to understand the concept. Nature is just one of many entry points that we can use, others are medicine or food, as Jeremy points out. I don’t think it is anti-intellectual to avoid speaking a word that a listener doesn’t understand, but I accept that the word ‘nature’ alone is not enough. As Matthew says, we need to be better at telling stories in ways that make sense to people.

  11. Marianne says:

    I have always felt that if we fill our stories with too much jargon the reader tends to switch off. However that said I dont see a problem with the word biodiversity at all since people have now begun to connect with it and just using the word ‘nature’ is being too simplistic.

  12. Jeremy says:

    Mike “provocative” question mark is certainly doing its job, and I have enjoyed the to-and-fro over what biodiversity does and doesn’t mean to various people. I’m tempted also to say that although people may use “antibiotic” freely these days, they still don’t really understand what they are or how evolution works on bacteria, thanks in part to that misunderstanding. But that’s another story.

    For now, I would ask your indulgence and point to a discussion going on at our blog, of the seeming inability of people concerned with agricultural biodiversity to get those concerned with biodiversity conservation even to begin to see that we want the same sorts of things.

    The recent Kew release on threatened plants, for example, blames agriculture for deforestation, and that is surely true. But there agriculture is by no means always the villain, and there are many kinds of agriculture.

    I think that one way to tell the compelling stories that might just persuade people is to ensure that these are stories of how humans are part of, and depend on, the rest of life. We manipulate it, as the Satoyama Initiative makes clear, and we are manipulated by it, when mudslides or floods or wildfires, all associated with mismanagement of ecosystems, render us destitute.

    Conserving biodiversity is too big a goal ever to be attained, like world peace. But we can manage small bits of it, and enough those can add up to something.

    The word means many things to many people, some of them (too) complex, some of them (too) simple, but I honestly don’t see any alternative right now.

  13. Peter Bridgewater says:

    “the seeming inability of people concerned with agricultural biodiversity to get those concerned with biodiversity conservation even to begin to see that we want the same sorts of things. ” says Jeremy

    yes but that’s one issue – the convention has 3 legs, conservation, sustainable use and sharing of benefits – which will be the stumbling piece in Nagoya in fact….
    Far too many commentators including *experts* stop at conservation – but when you look at the agenda of the convention its also about agricultural biod, its about forests, marine systems, the ecosystem approach (which is actually less about ecosystems and more about people) and so on….
    and, on telling stories i don’t mind that, but lets make them fully rounded stories not simply about this or that species, which is what tends to happen…

    so yes we have to take the three legs as i call them, but also recognise the hierarchical nature of biodiversity. if we don’t do full justice to this, then we end up, as Kew does, talking not about Biodiversity but about species, and ignoring the conservation – use- benefit sharing element.

    so of course its complicated but actually we simplify at our peril, because we then lose the message that at least the politicians and their advisers are getting, indeed have got.
    maybe biodiversity is natural history, or nature, but the power of the concept behind the word is its hierarchical nature. that’s what we lose if we stop using the word, but, as i said before, too many experts use the word wrongly, showing the concept is not really well understood or appreciated.

    personally i would have preferred a convention on natural history, but that didn’t happen, and if it had, wouldn’t translate so easily to all the worlds key languages as a totally new word did…

    In 2000 UNESCO had several workshops on improving communication and public awareness about biodiversity, and there was a strategy in the convention for this. Yet, again, the rubber didn’t really hit the road..

    so now its up to the communication fraternity, Mike, to actually get on and communicate!!

  14. Stephen says:

    Talked with Tom Lovejoy about this – he coined the term – and largely regrets having done so but it’s out there now. The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) group avoids the term and use “ecosystems” and “natural capital”” – but then they are economists.

    When I do talks to the general public I say “nature” and “natural systems”. However in my articles I do use the term “biodiversity” but explain it, try to use other terms and constantly search for better ways to communicate the concept.

    And I’ll be stealing brusselsblokes phrase: “life on Earth and the processes that sustain it”

  15. Peter Bridgewater says:

    Stephen – you say” The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) group avoids the term and use “ecosystems” and “natural capital”” – but then they are economists. ”

    do you not notice TEEB has biodiversity in its title??!! Is this classified as avoidence??!!

    and then if you read the reports you see it many times. But TEEB is a good example of where the terms get very mixed, ecosystems is actually ecosystem services and so thus the messages become confused and more obscure…. Linkage between biodiversity and ecosystem services is itself a very complex issue and far from straightforward.

    Incidentally there are several possibilities for the provenance of the word, but that’s all irrelevant now – Whats important is that we have had an international convention for 20 years and that’s the reality….

  16. Lou Clark says:

    Useful article and some interesting/important feedback here, especially from R. Harris (Sept. 28) and Jeremy (Oct 1., for ex.). Definitions of the noun ‘biodiversity’ accessed today online at Merriam-Webster’s and at Compact Oxford English are as follows: (1) “biological diversity in an environment as indicated by numbers of different species of plants and animals” (2) “the variety of plant and animal life in the world or in a particular habitat, a high level of which is usually considered to be important and desirable”. If these definitions of the word can be taken as sufficient, or sufficiently representative, then it would seem that the word ‘biodiversity’ ‘as defined’ is simple enough for the public to make sense of , and appreciate — that is, provided they take the time to look it up and ponder it contextually/conceptually. Despite such sensible approaches to word comprehension, unconscious biases do sometimes play a part in the (mis-)shaping of word meanings and understandings. The beautiful and meaningful word ‘biodiversity’ may for too many people be subject (phonemically and otherwise) to a kind of automatic eschewing or de-valuing. Hm.

  17. celticlion says:

    To me bio-diversity is not one of the bogey words, but your article has made me express why and what to me are.

    1) ‘Climate change’ is a problem. It is too simple a soundbite. It gives the illusion that if you say it, work with it or think you understand it all will be well with the world. Start moving away from ‘climate change’. Replace it with planetary management etc. Change the paradigm. Remember talking about climate change is about as useless as taking a car for an MoT road worthy test and only being concerned about the tyres. These may be OK for another 10,000 miles but you can still run into the back of a bus on leaving the garage because of not understanding the importance of defective brakes, suspension or steering. Climate change needs to be dropped back and more inclusive, accurate, useful and representative concepts need to be explored to.

    2) ‘Green’. Get rid of this and put it in the trash bin with Climate change. Never ever use this term. If you can’t explain what you want to say without using ‘green’, then you don’t understand the subject well enough you are communicating. Remember green is the colour of a field of cabbages or a coat of paint. It is a superficial concept and leads people to believe they have an understanding of what lies below, if they just say ‘green’. There was once a political party called the Ecology Party. When it changed its name to the Green party I never bothered with it again. If you use the term ecology, people may be inclined to ask you what you mean by it. If you use green, they may assume they know what it means, and further and deeper communication opportunity is lost. No one has given the subject of contemporary mainstream economics a colour, such as purple. So why do it with ecology and its application to sustainable planetary management. Ban ‘green’ and allow effective dialogue, communication and understanding to begin.

    3) Once we have banned terms such as ‘climate change’ and ‘green’ from our vocabulary, then we can start finding other more useful concepts for communication. We need to express the importance of our relationships with the planet, the environment, other organisms and other organisms. Ecology is the study of the inter-relationships of organisms and the environment. Ask yourself am I an organism. If you are, then ecology applies to you. Use cultural concepts to engage people with ecology. Say to a western media savvy audience, Have you seen Star Wars? Can you remember what ‘The Force’ is? Obi-Wan Kenobi, “It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together”, It also takes ecology out of a terrestrial context, eg the heavier elements for life could only have been produced in a supernova explosion. Consider other cultural concepts which may relate to ecology. Laws of Karma?

    For me I would not kill off bio-diversity, I would kill off climate change and green. Then using the alternatives of communication, we can explain bio-diversity and all the other important concepts essential to the continuance of life.

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