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.