The Biodiversity Card

DESCRIPTIONPhoto: Dan Perry Are golf courses actually good for biodiversity?

Until 1985, the word “biodiversity” didn’t exist. Today, it’s fundamental to the grammar of environmentalism. Lamentations about “declining biodiversity,” the “threat to biodiversity,” or the “the biodiversity crisis” comprise the lingua franca of ecological discourse. But it’s worth asking: what are we really talking about when we talk about biodiversity?

On the surface, the word signifies the entirety of biological life. It’s due largely to this popular understanding that policy discussions about biodiversity tend toward a “the more of it the better” position. This stance is mainly concerned with how the built environment negatively impacts specific species of plants and animals. It goes without saying that such concerns are critical during an age when humans have never pressed harder on natural resources. But not unlike the terms “environmentalism” and “sustainability,” biodiversity has a turbulent side, one with hidden implications that complicate its value as a precise gauge for land conservation.

The “more is better” version of biodiversity has certainly led to critically important environmental victories. Close to home, I’ve watched the concept of biodiversity play to the advantage of Austin, Texas, where my city’s environmental crown jewel-Barton Springs-has endured sustained encroachment from land developers hoping to surround the healing waters with McMansions and office parks. Protectors of the Springs-organized under the Save Our Springs organization (to whom I’ve donated)-have had qualified success keeping developers at bay on the grounds that the Springs encompasses a uniquely biodiverse ecosystem that would be undermined with extensive surrounding growth. Adding bite to S.O.S’s bark is the fact that a cute little endangered species-the Barton Springs salamander-stands to go extinct should developers get their permits.

Of course, no city wants to be known for committing mass herpicide upon such a tender creature. And it comes as no surprise that conservation advocates frequently hinge their causes on the precarious existence of an endangered species-recall the snail darter or the spotted owl-as a publicity-prone emblem of declining biodiversity.

For all the popularity of this strategy, though, I question the long-term utility of overplaying the biodiversity card to promote even the wisest conservation choices. Don’t misunderstand: I want the Springs to be protected with the force of an army. But highlighting an endangered salamander as the cause célebre obscures several aspects of biodiversity that could ultimately backfire on future conservationists aiming to do the right thing. With such debates bound to intensify as 2.5 billion people join the planet over the next 40 years, and as urbanization skyrockets from 50 to 75 percent, it’s worth taking a closer look at some of biodiversity’s messier challenges.

The heroic efforts of ecologists notwithstanding-biodiversity remains an impossible concept to quantify in absolute terms. The desire to protect the Springs on behalf of the salamander assumes that, with so many forms of life going extinct, we simply can’t allow another species to succumb to the impact of human disturbance. There’s no doubt that, for many species, genetic diversity is being eroded on a global scale. But critical questions remain: Is this erosion anything new in absolute terms? Is the decline in diversity that we’ve diligently documented and rightfully scorned reflective of genetic erosion as a whole? From the perspective of global biodiversity, does a salamander really matter?

Because we lack a baseline measure of species diversity, it’s hard to say. Noting “the extent and nature of our ignorance” when it comes to “assessments of biodiversity,” the Royal Society has acknowledged how “alarming gaps remain in the data.” Thankfully, scientists continue to fill them in. In the meantime, though, all their efforts combined, impressive as they often are, will pale next to the reality that only one millionth of the ocean floor has been explored for biological life (despite the fact that the sea comprises two-thirds of the planet), that for every species we do know something about there are three or four for which we have no data, and that more than half of all species are insects, with only .1 percent having been subjected to conservation assessments. And when it comes to the taxonomies of things like fungi and soil microbes, we’re basically clueless.

“Knowledge of the totality of species on Earth,” writes the Royal Society, “is therefore very poor.” This makes it very hard to assess the inherent value of a species such as the spotted owl, snail darter, or Barton Springs salamander.

Not only is our knowledge of the totality of species poor, but so is our understanding of how species will adapt to environments altered by human intervention. While it may be true that the salamander would have been pushed to the brink of extinction had development proceeded unchecked around the Springs, this doesn’t mean that other species wouldn’t have thrived in unanticipated ways. One school of ecological thought rests on the premise that “biodiversity often peaks” in ecosystems that have been moderately disturbed by human development. Given this point, it’s worth noting that an influential land developer in Austin wanted to build a series of golf courses in the vicinity of the sacred pool. Could such an aggressive form of human intervention into the comparatively natural landscape have actually fostered species diversity?

The question seems heretical until you start looking into the research being done on golf courses and biodiversity. Writing in the journal Ecosystems, two Swedish scientists found that a large majority (63 percent) of the 200+ golf courses they studied in the UK “were found to have ecological values similar to or higher than nature-protected sites” such as forest areas, state parks, and biological preserves. They concluded that “golf courses play an essential role in biodiversity conservation and ecosystems management.” This is no anomaly. Other studies have found that golf courses can provide ideal ecological niches for a variety of species, that they are often a reservoir for bumblebee populations, and that “green keepers can contribute greatly to conservation by providing . . . habitats for endangered local species.” Habitats like that for the Barton Springs salamander.

A final concern deals with the fact that, as we expand the built environment, some species will suffer the consequences while others will thrive, or at least suffer less. All of which raises a thorny philosophical question: who are we to decide which species deserve to flourish or suffer more than other species? Given that any sort of development, however aggressive, has the potential to influence an innumerable range of species in innumerable ways, we’re stuck with the task of somehow assigning comparative worth to plants and animals that have far outdated our own existence on the planet. Such a thought inevitably recalls George Carlin‘s observation that the planet is fine, but the people on it . . .

Preserving and fostering biodiversity is a profoundly important environmental challenge, one that will only intensify throughout the century. But because the concept is so difficult to pin down and quantify, preserving it may require doing so through less expansive standards. More general, and policy-applicable, standards such as density of production, extent of open space, public health concerns, and the integration of built and natural environment might serve environmental concerns more efficiently than a concept that, theoretically speaking, has as much sympathy for a landfill as it does a rain forest.

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  1. Brian says:

    While it is true that our catalog of life on this planet is incomplete, I think it is important to keep in mind that there are many examples of the negative implications of altering the natural biodiversity of a region. We have seen how the elimination of predators or the introduction of a new one can lead to large population changes in the rest of the food chain/web, sometimes with devastating effects. The importance of biodiversity should not be underestimated.

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  2. GLK says:

    Instead of formulating complicated reasons as to why, for example, Barton Springs shouldn’t be developed. Wouldn’t it be swell if we lived in a world where we could say, the majority of us don’t want it developed simply because we like to stare at the unspoiled landscape. The problem with overcomplicated reasoning is that it always creates fodder that will be exploited. Always. Then everybody loses in obscured ways.

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  3. Drill-Baby-Drill Drill Team says:

    A silly idea of ultimate biodiversity was enclosing a forest, desert, mangrove wetland, savannah prarie, an ocean and coral reef under 3 acre mylar dome in Biosphere 2 in the Arizona desert.

    This is the ultimate of expression of biodiversity by Eco Billionaire Pseudo Science. Imagine an ‘Ocean’ of 800 sq m complete with sharks and stingrays. The Savannah was elephant friendly, but he had to be under 150 lbs.

    Scientifically proven: Stay in dome for a month with Pauly Shore and YOU WILL GO INSANE–Pyschotic and Postal.

    Biodiversity is a much abused marketing term like Organic Foods, Locavore produce(Question what part of the city is that coffee grown?) and Chemical Free(Hello, a single skin cell operates with thousands of organic chemicals.)

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  4. John D says:

    Why make it so complicated? The term “biodiversity” reflects the number of different species in the same locale. Globally, it reflects the number of different species on the planet. Beyond that, it’s a matter of details. Yes, if a golf course provides as good or better habitat for the various rare species of the locale than the environment it replaced, then yes, the golf course is biodiverse. But does it?

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  5. Bob Matthews says:

    “I question the long-term utility of overplaying… ”

    I think you could follow these words with pretty much anything and get broad agreement.

    Nevertheless a good discussion about some of the issues to consider when using science to drive public policy.

    As a policy approach, “more biodiversity is better” is about as complicated as you can get and it has reasonable traction. In ecological sciences, there is little support for that idea as a fundamental principal. The reality is far more complicated. In many human-impacted landscapes, the diversity is so reduced that the rule applies (and that’s why it works for policy). In less impacted situations, you can increase the amount of common weeds (and thereby biodiversity) by disturbing the land. There the rule clearly does not apply.

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  6. Drill-Baby-Drill Drill Team says:

    If you have a giant field where you want to create biodiversity instead of a golf course try this project:

    Have a Woodstock Music Festival in your field. Encourage worldwide travel to the Festival. Encourage people to bring native fruits, cheeses, and yogurt. Have open camping, barefoot walking. Open green toilets. Encourage composting, such as discarded fruits, seeds and pits. Leave organic litter. In a short time, that land will reflect alll the new bacteria and bugs and nutrients and will never be the same. You might even have a mango tree, wild cherries, and heirloom apples.

    It is more encouraging to biodiversity than planting a monocrop of genetically modified corn or Kentucky Blue Grass Fescue of a golf course.

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  7. Thalia says:

    While the term “biodiversity” did not exist 30 years ago, the concept not only existed but was actively discussed before the 1970s. Read some of the discussion when the endangered species act was passed in 1973.

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  8. Dan says:

    i always thought it was kind of cool how birds in the cities started to nest on skyscrapers. Just another example for how biodiversity may extend beyond what our current definitions hold true.

    Maybe we should protect these vulnerable creatures, but does this hypothesis follow that the environment (habitation, animals, etc.) must also learn to deal with US as a condition for survival, just as we are forced to deal with it? I guess I am just stuck wondering if these animals are more adept to survive than we realize… will changing environments kill biodiversity, or just bring in a new set of parameters for biodiversity?

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