Arid Lands Newsletter--link to home page No. 37, Spring/Summer 1995
Conserving Biodiversity

Do we care only about endangered species, or are we ready to pledge allegiance to all levels of biodiversity?

by Gary Paul Nabhan


I believe it was the Day of the Dead, El Día de los Muertos. We were sitting around a big, sterile room in Washington, D.C., as if we were a group of hospital interns performing autopsies on failed lives. Those failed lives included the 1984 reauthorization of the Endangered Species Act, U.S. leadership at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, and subsequent discussions relating to the Biodiversity Convention, as well as dozens of other legislative actions and international policies that may be needed to keep the remains of this ark we live on afloat.

For a group of interns, it was an impressive bunch of individuals, each with some remarkable accomplishments under his or her blue scrubs. Some had played key roles in getting ranchers, researchers, and resource managers involved in regional plans for endangered species recovery or reintroduction. Others had worked with farmers and gardeners to save threatened seedstocks of hard-to-come-by vegetables, grains, and medicinal plants. Still others had initiated public awareness campaigns on migratory birds and sought to restore their coastal wetland corridors of passage between breeding grounds and winter roosts.

When each told how his or her recent work related in some way to educating the broader public and policymakers about biodiversity, it was hard to fathom why we were doing autopsies rather than sending our charges out from the recovery room. We all seemed to be bright, creative people who knew how to effectively care for the natural world and the creatures we share it with.

And yet, whatever we had been doing the last few years as advocates for biodiversity had hardly been enough to change anyone's mind about anything, let alone keep all our patients, neighbors, and fellow species alive. Just as we had finished patting each other on the backs for doing such a good job on our various rainforest protection campaigns, species survival programs, and environmental education projects, the morticians arrived to tell us just how many lives left under our charges had been lost.

We learned that biodiversity did not rank as a major environmental problem in any of the major public opinion polls taken between 1990 and 1994 (Communications Consortium Media Center 1994). We were reminded that only one-fifth of all Americans even recalled having ever heard the term "loss of biodiversity." Of those who had heard, there was little consensus on what it meant and hardly any notion of the prevailing causes.

Even though most Americans were aware that the Earth Summit occurred in Brazil in 1992, virtually none was aware that biodiversity was a major topic of discussion there or that the U.S. government's positions were at odds with the prevailing paradigms of how to structure further protection of Earth's diverse habitats and lifeforms.

And despite a more recent Harris survey, in which 39 percent of the Americans polled claimed that they were "very concerned" about the current mass extinctions of plants and animals, the American Museum of Natural History (1994) conceded that "they are clearly unaware of some of the most fundamental facts about the diversity of life."

Here come the pragmatic reductionists

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Perhaps these grim statistics did not disturb me as much as I was disturbed by some of the interns' responses to them. For example, one intern suggested that we retreat to the simplest possible message, since the American public obviously could not get the drift of a notion as complex as biodiversity.

I tried to scribble down her entire statement, but my pencil lead broke somewhere during her soliloquy, perhaps owing to too much pressure.

"Just tell them that it means endangered species," she said. "Or better yet, drop the term biodiversity altogether, and tell them that every time we lose a unique plant or animal we may be losing a cure to cancer or to AIDS. That's what they worry about."

Another colleague was perfectly happy to let surveys tell us what we should emphasize: "If surveys of school children tell us that they feel the most threatening environmental problem is the extinction of tigers, then let's help them organize a Save the Tigers campaign. That's an image they see on TV, so they feel compassion for tigers. Instead of explaining biodiversity to them, just tell them that tigers need safe places to live, and if we get tiger habitat saved, you and I know that a lot of biodiversity will be saved with it."

Such strategies are based on the assumption that Americans currently can't stand anything complicated, so it is best to reduce any issue either to an icon or to the lowest common denominator.

I reject not only those strategies, but also the premise upon which those strategies are based. To say that biodiversity can ultimately be conserved by reducing it to its lowest common denominator--whether that be a longing for cures to human ills or guilt over the extinction of the charismatic animals that frequent our cartoons and breakfast cereal boxes--is insupportable. And to base those strategies on the conventional wisdom that contemporary Americans have an attention span no greater than the longest commercial during prime-time TV is both arrogant and unproductive.

Endangered species and biodiversity are not synonyms

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While reauthorization of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) is a biodiversity issue, biodiversity and endangered species are not synonymous. Nor is the ESA enough to insure the conservation of biodiversity within the U.S. Likewise, as a desert ethnobotanist, I do not care to see more traditionally-utilized plants extirpated owing to our neglect of them; their cultural utility, however, is not the primary reason I believe they have the same right to exist that I do.

As David Ehrenfeld (1981) has convincingly argued for more than two decades, a conservation ethic based only on the utility (or even the presumed uniqueness) of a species as a resource is bound to fail because that approach simply rationalizes the sacrifice of species of no known use. In addition, once a cancer-fighting chemical like taxol from yew trees becomes artificially synthesized in the laboratory, some idiot chemist will claim that the plant itself is expendable--that is, if overharvesting has not already wiped it out.

In a similar lapse of logic, we tend to give undue attention to naturally rare species, while formerly widespread species such as the passenger pigeon or grama grass cactus can be rapidly depleted throughout their ranges before resource managers recognize what has happened. Even if we were to guarantee that population samples of all federally-listed endangered species were protected in at least one zoo, seed bank, garden, park, or refuge, we could easily run the risk of ending up living in an exceedingly impoverished world. By reducing the entire issue of biodiversity to the number of species being wiped out--or even the number being "saved"--we have boiled conservation biology down not to its essence but to a tasteless sludge.

So what is biodiversity?

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This concern recently was raised in a letter to the editors of Conservation Biology written by Katherine Jope (1994) of the National Park Service: "While zoos may conserve a species' genetic resources, at least for a time, they fall short of conserving the interrelationships and emergent properties of an ecosystem.... For too long we have accepted without question [a paradigm of species conservation that] is proving a hindrance to our ability to conserve the biodiversity of the Earth."

In a recent issue of Biodiversity Letters, Australian ecologist D. M. J. S. Bowman (1993) takes issue with the premise that biodiversity should be treated simply as the number of species remaining in a particular place, as if biodiversity can be reified as a thing:

"So what is biodiversity? My belief is that the variety of life on the planet is like an extra-ordinarily complex, unfinished and incomplete manuscript with a hugely varied alphabet, an ever expanding lexicon, and poorly understood grammar...Ripping the manuscript to pieces because we want to use the paper makes little sense, especially if the manuscript says that `to survive you shall not destroy what you do not understand.'"

It is the poorly understood grammar--that is, the ecological interactions among the plants, animals, and microbes that form biotic communities--that should humble us the most and keep us from assuming that a reductionist approach will land us anywhere near where we need to be. For some reason, most public discussions of biodiversity remain fixed on species diversity--or, conversely, the loss of species--rather than also taking into account landscape-level and genetic heterogeneity (Office of Technology Assessment 1987). We must begin to include within our definitions of biodiversity the varied habitats, the co-evolved guilds of plants, pollinators, and seed dispersers, the mycorhizal and rhizobial associations of plants, and the microbial mutualists in animal guts. Because we know we cannot simply replace a native, oligolectic solitary bee with an introduced honey bee and expect the same fidelity to endemic flower, the same pollination effectiveness per floral visit, and the same resulting rate of seed set, we cannot afford to give the public the impression that biodiversity is made up simply of numbers of interchangeable parts.

That is one of the theoretical weaknesses of most mathematical treatments of biodiversity: they are based on the premise that species are analogous to "information bits." Such treatments cannot take into account the emergent properties apparent in co-evolved mutualists, which, although few in number in most communities, play a disproportionately large role in structuring those communities. Fig/fig wasp mutualisms or the relationships between nectar-feeding bats and ancient cactus forests are two examples of ecological interactions that temporally and spatially shape the communities of which they are a part.

Similarly, species/area curve predictions of extinction probabilities tend to treat species as interchangeable units and cannot assign probabilities of extinction to particular keystones species and their associated guilds (Koopowitz et al. 1994). What's more, even somewhat ecologically literate science journalists assume that such models should be equally as applicable to birds, fish, and migratory invertebrates as to sessile organisms such as plants and intertidal invertebrates (Mann and Plummer 1995). As a result, they question the validity of conservation biology theory when these models fail to predict real extinction rates.

And what do we do about it?

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The upshot is that conservation biologists seldom win at the numbers game, so why are we still playing it? Instead, why not attempt compellingly to communicate the gestalt of biodiversity at all levels (as well as the values imbedded in it and the equally important concept of wildness) if that is what really concerns us? If you do not believe that such a complex concept can be conveyed in both a careful and inspiring manner, then I suggest you reread E.O. Wilson's Biophilia (1984), or take a look at filmmaker Godfrey Reggio's Anima Mundi (which he prepared for the Earth Summit), or scan photographer/entomologist David Cavagnaro's montages of fruit and seed diversity prepared as posters, yearbook inserts, and calendars for the Seed Saver's Exchange. Complexity itself can be communicated to child and adult alike in elegant ways; its portrayal need not be so complicated that no one but technicians can understand it.

We have, to date, generally failed to make biodiversity intelligible and wonderful to a wider audience. We have been preaching largely to the saved, rather than engaging the unconverted.

The challenge before us is to make a complex subject of vital interest to the many, to people from all cultures and all walks of life. In fact, metaphorically relating biodiversity to cultural diversity may be one of the most socially relevant hooks we have. And yet, how many ecologists are aware that six of the nine recognized centers of linguistic diversity (containing 60 percent of all extant human dialects) occur within countries considered to be megadiversity centers of higher plants and animals (Toledo 1994)? We must begin to explore metaphors and images that appeal not only to those of us trained in Western science, but also to the many stakeholders whose daily work depends upon sustaining interactions with a variety of plants and animals: beekeepers, fishermen, basket weavers, butterfly farmers, herbalists, furniture makers.

Unless we can further engage a diversity of people in the conservation of biodiversity, the epitaph for our movement years from now will be: "We died of a peculiar strain of reductionism, complicated by an attack of elitism, even though there were ready cures near at hand."


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American Museum of Natural History. 1994. American Museum of Natural History announces results of nationwide survey on science literacy (press release). AMNH Office of Public Affairs, April.

Bowman, D.M.J.S. 1993. Biodiversity: much more than biological inventory. Biodiversity Letter 1:163.

Communications Consortium Media Center. 1994. An Analysis of Public Opinion on Biodiversity and Related Environmental Issues, 1990-1994. New York: Consultative Group on Biological Diversity.

Ehrenfeld, D. 1981. The Arrogance of Humanism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Jope, Katherine L. 1994. Paradigm of species conservation. Conservation Biology 8(4): 924-25.

Koopowitz, H., A. D. Thornhill, and M. Andersen. 1994. A general stochastic model for the prediction of biodiversity losses based on habitat conversion. Conservation Biology 8(2): 425-38.

Mann, C. and M. Plummer. 1995. Noah's Choice. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Office of Technology Assessment. 1987. Technologies to Maintain Biological Diversity. Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Toledo, V. M. 1994. Biodiversity and cultural diversity in Mexico. Different Drummer. Summer: 16-19.

Wilson, E.O. 1984. Biophilia. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

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Author information

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Gary Paul Nabhan is Science Advisor to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson and a Research Associate with The Office of Arid Lands Studies. He is the author of many books and articles on a broad range of subjects related to ethnobotany and to the diverse life of the world's deserts, including The Desert Smells Like Rain , Gathering the Desert (which was awarded the John Burroughs Medal), Enduring Seeds , and Songbirds, Truffles and Wolves .

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