Define Biodiversity. Please?

Biodiversity has become a ubiquitous ‘buzzword.’ Dictionary.com defines it as “diversity among and within plant and animal species in an environment” (dictionary.com, 2013). This definition reveals the potential absurdity of the idea that “people have created biodiversity, so they are essential to its survival” (Redford, Brandon, & Sanderson, 2006, p. 237). This statement implies, at least on a superficial level, that there was no diversity of species before humans arrived on the scene, and only with human’s creative powers did this diversity arise. Redford et al (2006) dismantle the idea that humans created biodiversity and thus are in some way essential for its survival by pointing out that the word ‘biodiversity’ is only a “meaningful concept,” and different from the actual and real state of affairs to which it refers (Redford et al, 2006, p. 237). This suggests that humans, since they created biodiversity, might be thus essential only to the term, not to the survival of the actual biodiversity found in the world. In a sense, they become responsible for the survival and evolution of the term, not, however, for the survival of actual biodiversity. This indicates a need to isolate the difference between the use of the words essential and responsible. While humans might be dismissed from the essential part of the survival of biodiversity, this does not relieve them of the obligation and ability to protect actual biodiversity. Just because biodiversity can be seen as only a concept does not mean that we are not responsible for protecting the actual, real biodiversity. While perhaps not essential to its survival, this does not negate the need to fully understand the term and the concept, and to thoughtfully approach the conservation of both.

Though loosely related, what becomes apparent in these definitions of biodiversity is the use of a single term to describe different concepts. It is therefore essential to also isolate the differences and establish clear boundaries between the different usages of this term. The first usage refers to the actual biological state of affairs on earth – the diversity of animal and plant species (dictionary.com, 2013). The importance of this actual biodiversity cannot be emphasized enough, but as one example, gorillas have been called the “gardeners of the rain forest,” with elephants fulfilling similar tasks, and any loss of these species could have a large effect on the environment (McRae, 2006, p. 250).

The second use of the term relates to the social construct as described by Redford et al (2006), and Escobar (2006). This is an important concept to consider:  how can humans engage the world as it actually is – comprised of actual biodiversity – without being able to talk about it or to effectively collaborate between nations, organizations, or academic disciplines? Ultimately, it would seem that the use of the term biodiversity as such a human mechanism represents a cultural development through the harnessing of human energy, as described by White (2006), which provides the “ability to do work” (p. 139).

Biodiversity thus becomes a social construct only in the sense that it is a term used in the attempt to classify, categorize, and understand the world. Escobar (2006), while acknowledging the real biological existence of biodiversity, also describes it as a human created concept – a scientific mechanism which is a response to a state of affairs, and merely an “act of naming a new reality” (p.243). In this sense, he rejects, or at best evades discussion of the existence of an objective thing called biodiversity, claiming instead that the word is an anchor for discourse on the relationship between humans and the environment (Escobar, 2006, p.43). He gives the term biodiversity coproductive powers with techno-science and society (Escobar, 2006, p. 243), and ultimately assigns to it an epistemological function, operating in a complex network of ‘actors’ in the organization of the production of knowledge and power (Escobar, 2006, p. 244). This reflects the ideas of the third stage of ecological anthropology as described by Orlove (2006), which is more processual, and focuses more on the individual than did its predecessors (p. 205).

Having briefly differentiated between the uses of the term biodiversity, the fact that two different concepts are being described by the same term is clear. It also becomes clear that the conversation presented by Escobar (2006) and Reford et al (2006) is not about actual biodiversity, its characteristics, its importance, or its conservation. It is a philosophical inquiry into the nature of real things and images of those things; one that that has been ongoing since at least Plato’s Sophist. While an interesting conversation to have, it is ultimately only a distraction, and, in light of the magnitude of current environmental problems, should be closed off as quickly as possible. Like all other social constructs which describe the world as it actually is and enables humans to progress culturally, what makes ‘biodiversity’ a social construct is how it is implemented over time and used to inform decision and policy making, as well as informing general worldviews of individuals and cultures. This should be done thoughtfully, considering possible impacts and unintentional misuse of the term.

Though at times confusing, there are many instances of different concepts being described by an identical word. Such usage is problematic in this context though, considering the importance of biodiversity both in the biological and social sense, to the well-being of the planet and all inhabitants, including humans. The confusion of this term can lead to idea that biodiversity should either be exploited, perhaps as an extension of “diversity in use” (Haenn, 2006,p.232), or jealously protected, sometimes at the expense of cultural tradition, places of work (Haenn, 2006,p.229), or even human survival, as described in Hill’s (2006) essay on the ivory trade. It is clear that the subject of biodiversity is complex and highly important for the planet, its wildlife, and human culture and existence. To attempt to relieve humans of responsibility of the care of actual biodiversity through reduction of the term to a mere social construct is an unfortunate side effect of the philosophical discussion of the term. It should therefore become a priority to use the term ‘biodiversity’ exclusively to refer to the biological sense of the term, and, in order to avoid any misunderstandings and misuse, to use other terms for the social construct and human attempts to engage that vital biodiversity.

 

Works Cited

Dictionary.com (2013). Biodiversity | Define Biodiversity at Dictionary.com. Retrieved October 22, 2013, from http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/biodiversity?s=t

Escobar, A. (2006). Does Biodiversity Exist? In N. Haenn, & R. R. Wilk (Ed.), The environment in anthropology: A reader in ecology, culture, and sustainable living (pp. 243-245). New York: New York University Press.

Haenn, N. (2006). The Power of Environmental Knowledge: Ethnoecology and Environmental Conflicts in Mexican Conservation. In N. Haenn, & R. R. Wilk (Ed.), The environment in anthropology: A reader in ecology, culture, and sustainable living (pp. 226-236). New York: New York University Press.

Hill, K. A. (2006). Conflicts over Development and Environmental Values: The International Ivory Trade in Zimbabwe’s Historical Context. In N. Haenn, & R. R. Wilk (Ed.), The environment in anthropology: A reader in ecology, culture, and sustainable living (pp. 215-225). New York: New York University Press.

McRae, M. (2006). Road Kill in Cameroon. In N. Haenn, & R. R. Wilk (Ed.), The environment in anthropology: A reader in ecology, culture, and sustainable living (pp. 246-254). New York: New York University Press.

Orlove, B. . (2006). The Third Stage of Ecological Anthropology: Processual Approaches. In N. Haenn, & R. R. Wilk (Ed.), The environment in anthropology: A reader in ecology, culture, and sustainable living (pp. 205-214). New York: New York University Press.

Redford, K., Brandon, K., & Sanderson, S. (2006). Holding Ground. In N. Haenn, & R. R. Wilk (Ed.), The environment in anthropology: A reader in ecology, culture, and sustainable living (pp. 237-242). New York: New York University Press.

White, L. (2006). Energy and Tools. In N. Haenn, & R. R. Wilk (Ed.), The environment in anthropology: A reader in ecology, culture, and sustainable living (pp. 139-144). New York: New York University Press.

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