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.