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Does the term “biodiversity” undermine biodiversity conservation?

August 26, 2010

I recently attended a media strategy workshop on biodiversity organised by the Netzwerk-Forum Biodiversitätsforschung. This is a network that links biodiversity research with wider German society (http://www.biodiversity.de/). The aim of the workshop was to discuss with media experts (i.e. print, radio and TV journalists) how to increase public awareness of the global biodiversity crisis.

For me, a key insight from the workshop was that the term “biodiversity” (which in German sounds very stiff) is too technical to be recognized by the public and politicians.  This prompted me to ask whether biodiversity is a poor term (though not from a scientific point-of-view) and is partly responsible for the public ignorance of the reality of biodiversity crisis?  Do we need to coin a better term?  It goes without saying that competition for media spaces gets stiffer every year.  Maybe what we need are good stories, sharp titles (I always admire the short titles in the Economist), as well as hard data and facts. A statement such as “the decrease of biodiversity is higher in freshwaters than in marine and terrestrial ecosystems” appears too vague and outside the box of everyday life to be successfully communicated.

I am very curious to get your opinion on get your comment on this topic.

Best wishes,

Klement

2 Comments leave one →
  1. BrusselsBloke permalink
    August 27, 2010 09:44

    This discussion is very timely. There are clearly at least two sides to the argument: on the one hand, the word is well known to everyone who works on the issues related to it, and has perhaps slowly gained some recognition among decision makers. From this perspective, it might be unwise to give up the ground we have so painfully gained. On the other hand, it is rather a bristly word that people are unlikely to learn at their mother’s knee. In this sense it fails to fill one fundamental role of a word: to communicate clearly and unambiguously what it means to people who are not in the business. This is exactly the definition of “jargon” – try typing “define: jargon” into Google.

    Of course this is not an “either-or” issue. Those of us who work on biodiversity will go on using the word. But if we wish to communicate to those outside the holy circle, we should take care to substitute another word or phrase, depending on the context and the meaning we wish to convey – for “biodiversity” is a chameleon of a word. Let’s look at some of those quite different meanings:

    the way an ecosystem develops, maintains itself and evolves
    the complex web of interactions between living things
    the richness and distribution of species in an area
    all genes, species, and ecosystems in a region
    the basis and raw material of evolution
    the genetic richness of a population
    the different life forms in an area
    the interdependence of life forms
    the variability among organisms
    the ecology of living systems
    the variety of life on Earth
    everything that ever lived
    the variety of ecosystems
    the number of species
    the diversity of life
    the natural world
    the basis of life
    life itself
    …or simply…
    life on Earth

    Has the use of the word got in the way of efforts to stop the loss of biodiversity? In my view, no. I think that the reasons for our failure to stop the loss of biodiversity is that “biodiversity” and its loss is not something separate from humans and the way humans go about being human. It is a symptom and a strong signal of something alarming – that our current model of how humans relate to the rest of the living world is not only dysfunctional but terminally unsustainable. To stop the loss of biodiversity will therefore take more than a few nature directives and better environmental legislation, however useful those might be. It will take a wholesale overhaul of our economic model, and a radical change in our view of ourselves as consumers to an understanding that we must be and act as responsible and ethical citizens of the blue planet.

  2. September 2, 2010 16:35

    I suggest the problem with biodiversity is this. People relate new knowledge and terms to concepts that they already know. They assess or receive the term biodiversity in relation to the frames they use to make sense of a complex world. The concept of frames was proposed by the sociologist Irwin Goffman (1974) who suggested that people make sense of and act within a complex world by gathering together a assemblage of ideas, objects and practices in ‘frames’. Frame construction is largely a social and cultural process. Frames develop over time and can be understood as the sedimented histories of particular ways of understanding and engaging with the world. The concept of the frame is well developed in new social movement theory and is increasingly being used in policy studies to think about processes of mobilisation and policy support (or indifference). Of particular interest are notions of frame bridging and frame alignment – where conservation messages and/or concepts are aligned with deeply held individual and collective ‘frames’ e.g. identity (for a brilliant example of this concept in action check out this Ogilvy & WWF/Benfica video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NAq_bnaZHQw&feature=related.)

    From a frame analytical perspective the problem with biodiversity is that neither the composite term nor its individual words ‘biological’ and, to a lesser extent, ‘diversity’ bridge with the frames constructed by everyday people. In contrast biological and diversity can bridge with old and established policy frames relating to natural resource management and anxieties concerning the social and economic impacts of environmental degradation. What we need is a term that has similar frame-bridging potential in the policy, scientific and public (various) domains. I tend to the view that ‘nature’ still has great potential not least because it is a frame in its own right.

    Paul Jepson

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