Why biodiversity is important

Biodiversity is the term used to encompass the variety of all living organisms on Earth, including their genetic diversity, species diversity and the diversity of marine, terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, together with their associated evolutionary and ecological processes. But as biodiversity is also a human concept, different people bring their own set of values to bear on it. Dr Steve Morton talks about the different values that humans obtain from biodiversity and the role we will need to play in shaping its future.

Video source: CSIRO / YouTube.

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DR STEVE MORTON, Narrator: Biodiversity is the web of life. Biodiversity is the full variety of all the species that you see in the natural environmental around you, like these witchetty buses and Eremophilas. All those species across the face of the earth make up biodiversity. And it’s not just species; it’s also the genetic variabilities they have within them. And it’s not just the genetic variability and the all the species diversity, it’s the diversity of ecosystems that they make up, and which you can see behind me in this part of central Australia. 

Biodiversity is all those things. It’s the evolutionary history which has given rise to that genetic variability in all these species. It’s the functions that all those ecosystems produce in providing clean water, and in cycling nutrients. Biodiversity is all those things, and the processes that result from the living world. Biodiversity is the web of life. The concept of biodiversity first emerged during the 1980s, actually quite recently, because of the concern about the impact of human beings on the planet. Given that human beings are so abundant and so influential in what we do, we are clearly having an impact globally. So biodiversity as a concept emerged as a way of highlighting the precious nature of that living world and highlighting the need for human beings to think more carefully about the values and benefits that they obtain from the living world, from biodiversity. 

The diversity of life, and the diversity if human appreciation of it, is such that I think there are at least five categories of values that we need to consider in asking ourselves the questions, or rather answering the questions why is biodiversity important and why does it matter. 

And the first of those is obvious, it’s economic. In some places we human beings turn biodiversity into dollars. We harvest timber, we catch fish from the sea. Those direct uses of biodiversity provide economic wellbeing to many human communities. 
The second major value of biodiversity is what you might call ecological life support. Another way of phrasing is ecosystem services. These are benefits that human beings obtain from the natural world, such as the provision of clean water, the pollination of crops, the control of pests and weeds by other species. 

The third one is in essence it’s cultural. That the world around us informs the way we feel about our country. Our great artists frequently represent the natural world in their artworks, and they hang in all the galleries throughout Australia. Including, I might point out, Indigenous painters, whose depiction of country is often deeply rooted in what we might call biodiversity. All Australians recognise all those of us who’ve had the benefit of flying overseas and coming home and know about the impact of the smell of gum leaves when finally you get home again. You know in some senses the landscape around us tells us who we are. I mean we have an emu and a kangaroo on our coat of arms. And those values are very difficult to put any number on. But it doesn’t mean they’re insignificant. They’re incredibly important. So that’s a third value. 

There’s a fourth one, and this one you might be able to put numbers on because it’s recreational value. People love getting out in the bush and rejuvenating. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a tough bushwalk in Tasmania, or you know just an easy bout of bird watching in the paddock down by the dam, or just jogging by a lake in Canberra, Sydney or Melbourne. 

The fifth one, I have left it to last because it’s the scientific value and that might sound a little bit precious to be claiming that, but it’s true. Australian biodiversity on the global scale is unique. There’s nothing else like Australia.

It must be said that there is a sixth value which you might describe as the negative value, the unpleasant aspects of biodiversity in its relation to human beings. You don’t find many people arguing for the right to exist of the malarial parasite, or the smallpox virus. In Australia many people are frightened of crocodiles, for good reason. So there is a part of the natural world that we fear, and that’s always present in all societies. 

With seven billion people on the face of the planet the natural world is experiencing a decline. Biodiversity is declining, it’s demonstrably occurring. The nature of this impact, this universal impact that human beings are now having on planet Earth has led to the development of a term which is the Anthropocene. Now the Anthropocene builds upon the geological eras, like the Pliocene and Miocene, and the Pleistocene, so it’s a deliberate play on the evolution of the Earth over its history, to a point now where it is dominated by human activity. That is unique. So it’s a different geological era. We humans, our decisions now govern the future of the Earth. 

It’s up to us.

So I think there are three challenges. 

First of all, to understand, analyse and help deal with the ongoing decline in biodiversity. That is a big challenge for science. 

Secondly, understanding the full complexity of biodiversity. All those values and interactions that I spoke about before have a scientific component to them, and science is wrestling with the size of that task. 

And thirdly, science is still working out how best to contribute to the discussions about trade-offs between different forms of resource use with biodiversity implications, because it’s those resource use activities that are causing the decline in the first place. You could take the conversation we’re having to be pessimistic, that you know biodiversity is declining, you know human beings are getting more and more abundant you know it’s all going to wrack and ruin. 

I actually don’t think that way. Particularly in Australia, we have so much to be proud of, so many aspects of our society are ready to deal with these problems. We have tremendous experience in our society at the sort of social dialogue, political debate necessary to make sure these things are taken account of. We have a fantastic scientific base. We have community involvement in natural resource management, including biodiversity management, to an unparalleled level. Couldn’t have been expected when I was a boy. 

There are many, many things to be positive about. Good reasons for optimism.  


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