Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: It's time I embraced the word 'biodiversity'

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What's your reaction to the word biodiversity? Do you know what it means? Legend has it that when John Prescott took up office as the Environment Secretary in the New Labour government of 1997, he thought it was a washing powder. But of course he soon learned, as all of us learn, that biodiversity is basically a portentous way of saying wildlife.

The word seems to have come into use in the late 1980s as a way of making wildlife and the natural world, and their protection, seem more significant and important to policymakers, so that governments and academics would take the issue more seriously. I have had a problem with it ever since, as I think its use creates a gap of understanding between the aforesaid policymakers and ordinary citizens, whose feelings and opinions are, after all, the foundation of political will. You probably know at least a couple of people who might spontaneously say: "I love watching wildlife." Do you know anyone, anyone at all – an ordinary citizen – who might spontaneously say: "I love watching biodiversity"? The use of the term shuts ordinary people out from the debate, and such is my aversion to it linguistically that I have managed to avoid it, entirely, in the six months I have been writing this column, which represents something approaching 20,000 words now.

But – and it's a big but – it can't be avoided forever. For one thing, it is the currency in use in the policymaking debate about the future of the natural world, and if we want to engage in the debate, we have to deal with it. For another, the virtue of the term, it has to be admitted, is that it is more all-encompassing than simply saying "wildlife", which for many people would tend to mean simply red squirrels or polar bears. Here's a good definition of it: biodiversity is "the variety of genes, species and ecosystems that constitute life on earth".

That comes from a new scientific paper published today in the leading American journal Science which is of signal importance for anyone concerned with the future of nature. "Biodiversity Conservation: Challenges Beyond 2010" is a comprehensive and articulate summary of the increasing threats to the world's species and ecosystems and indeed, all the genes which constitute them, and a formulation of how society ought to respond. The authors are members of the Cambridge Conservation Initiative, a collaborative partnership between Cambridge University and the group of wildlife conservation bodies based in and around the city, such as Fauna and Flora International, BirdLife International and the World Conservation Monitoring Centre (there are 10 in total and I hope the others will forgive me not naming them, for lack of space).

They point out that conservation efforts are increasing all around the world – we have a global wildlife treaty, the 1992 Convention on Biodiversity(CBD) and the vast majority of its 193 signatory states now have biodiversity action plans of one sort or another, while the global network of protected areas now stands at more than 133,000 designated sites covering more than 24m square kilometres. Furthermore, the economic value of biodiversity is increasingly recognised, especially in the provision of "ecosystem services" – oxygen, fresh water, carbon storage, pollination, enjoyment and a myriad other properties are all provided by the natural world.

Yet biodiversity, they say, continues to decline, and at an accelerating rate, such are the pressures from human expansion, with climate change another dark shadow on the horizon. To save it, they propose a fundamental shift in the way it is regarded: biodiversity must be regarded as a global public good and managed as such. It's not enough to recognise its economic and social value (which itself was a big step forward); there must be public policies in place which reward its protection, and penalise its harm. The value of biodiversity must be integrated into all political, social and economic decision-making, and not just regarded, say, as part of a nation's environmental agenda; and institutions must be set up to make this possible.

That's their prescription. It makes eminent sense. It will be high on the agenda of the next meeting of the parties of the CBD, which takes place in Japan next month. But will it come to pass? What depresses me about the analysis is that it is almost certainly right, and if the steps outlined by the Cambridge Conservation Initiative are not taken, the world's wildlife and ecosystems will continue their precipitate plunge downwards; but the chances of the world taking these steps seem to be getting smaller and smaller.

To give one example: last week, in China, I travelled by coach from Shanghai to the heritage city of Hangzhou, a journey of about 115 miles. In all that distance I saw no birds whatsoever, apart from one group of six egrets in a paddy field. No crows, no gulls, no magpies, no songbirds. The entire landscape was urbanised. Imagine: London to Bristol, built up with tower blocks for the whole way. What was on view was the shortly-to-open Shanghai to Hangzhou Maglev railway line, the world's fastest long-distance train, which will travel at 250mph-plus and do the journey between the two cities in 27 minutes.

There you have the priorities of the world's economic powerhouse: in come the supertrains; out go the songbirds. As seen from the window of a long-distance bus, the chances that China would ever start integrating concern for biodiversity into all its other decision-making seemed absolutely minimal, and I should think that goes for most of the world's developing countries. But even if the implications are (to me at least) pretty depressing, the Cambridge Conservation Initiative's analysis is outstanding in its articulacy, and essential reading for anyone concerned with the future of the natural world.

m.mccarthy@independent.co.uk

For further reading

'Biodiversity Conservation: Challenges Beyond 2010', Rands et al ( Science, Vol 329, 10 September 2010. www.sciencemag.org)

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