Thought piece: biotic diversity revisited

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An independent thought piece by Daniel P. Faith of the Australian Museum Research Institute in Sydney, Australia.
The content of this thought piece represents the author’s own views and does not necessarily represent the views of the Biodiversity Revisited initiative nor of any of its collaborating institutions.

Biotic Diversity Revisited

The heart of the Biodiversity Revisited initiative is a “reframing of ‘biodiversity’”. Here, I will describe how my own recent work may add some useful perspectives. I have been ‘revisiting’ biodiversity by considering foundational ideas forged during the period before the emergence of the term. This looking back at the pre-history of ‘biodiversity’ (the history of the term before it was invented) reveals early support for the idea that ‘biotic diversity’ (one of several ‘biodiversity’ synonyms from the 1970s) is about variety, and is about the value of such variety in maintaining options for humanity (including ‘insurance’ and ‘option value’).‘Biodiversity option value’ refers to the idea that living variation is valuable because we cannot predict which elements (e.g. species) will provide uses/benefits in the future; ‘biodiversity insurance value’ refers to the idea that living variation is valuable because we cannot predict which elements will help maintain stability/integrity in the face of future changes.

My revisiting of the term ‘biodiversity’ supports a back-to-basics framing that counters the now-common idea that ‘biodiversity’ should holistically capture everything we want to conserve or even everything we like about the environment. This unfortunate trend has created an increasing muddling of biodiversity’s narratives. For example, presuming that ‘biodiversity’ includes any ecological ‘diversity’ index not only has created a less coherent biodiversity narrative, but also has coincided with a neglect of core values of variety, including option value.

Biodiversity Revisited might appear to echo my concerns in lamenting what it calls a “muddled” biodiversity narrative. However, I’m now troubled by the rationale for this initiative. While I have argued that too much has been packed into the ‘biodiversity’ story, Biodiversity Revisited argues that biodiversity science and its narratives have failed in not being broad or inclusive enough. The initiative argues that ‘biodiversity’ has not been “a compelling object for sufficient action to halt the degradation of the diversity of life on Earth,” and argues that “a more holistic conceptual framing may create a more compelling object”.

I’m concerned about some presumptions in Biodiversity Revisited. For example, reference is repeatedly made to the broad ecological notion of ‘diversity’ as a focus of holistic approaches. This may contribute to our current muddled biodiversity narratives. Similarly, an ecological emphasis is also found in the stated presumption that it is vital to determine the level of “dangerous” biodiversity loss. Global biodiversity option values may not have such thresholds.

These strong ecological perspectives in Biodiversity Revisited reignite my concerns about possible neglect of the core values of ‘biodiversity-as-variety’. Indeed, Biodiversity Revisited argues:

“Integrating future concerns into current day decision-making is of existential importance to humanity, yet the dominant approaches to managing biodiversity are largely reactive and backwards looking – seeking to conserve species or landscape as it was in the past.”

You might say, “‘backwards looking’ – that can’t be good!”. Yet, the basis for biodiversity’s maintenance of options is exactly that – we look back at the past in appreciating the living variation that evolutionary processes have produced. This is highlighted in IPBES’ use of evolutionary heritage (phylogenetic diversity) as one indicator of maintenance of options for humanity. Conserving the past is one of the most forward-looking things we can do.

This claim about “backwards looking” is a supposed limitation of biodiversity science and narratives. However, such critiques may reflect more that Biodiversity Revisited is interested in holism than in the biodiversity crisis. For example, the criticism that biodiversity “efforts have been too narrowly focused on species” seems over-stated in the face of the IPBES recent assessment suggesting one million species are at risk of extinction. ‘Biodiversity’ is not failing us; we are failing biodiversity.

The solution, I think, is back to basics – call it “Biotic Diversity Revisited”. This better recognises the pre-history origins of the biodiversity concept, promoting ‘variety’ and its various values to humanity, while seeking integration with other needs of society. The pre-history suggests that biodiversity as variety offers clear benefits for us, providing a compelling reason to take action about biodiversity loss. In contrast, holistically packing everything into new narratives may turn out to be the very thing that invites future criticisms of failing to resonate, of vagueness, and of lack of a coherent message.

The CBD, in its 2050 vision, noted that transformational change involves trade-offs among the different needs of society. This seems best served by articulating a clear core meaning of biodiversity-as-variety. I believe that this is the resonating, less-vague, coherent message that not only enables traction regarding the biodiversity crisis, but also enables exploration of trade-offs and synergies, and so ultimately better serves broader biosphere issues.

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The content of this thought piece represents the authors’ own views and does not necessarily represent the views of the Biodiversity Revisited initiative nor of any of its collaborating institutions. 

Daniel P Faith is based at the Australian Museum Research Institute in Sydney