Importance of biodiversity

The importance of biodiversity is about two things:

  1. what diversity can make happen.
  2. as a symbol for our conscience

This means that biodiversity is not just about the preservation of iconic species or actions that lead to conservation of nature. It is also the complexity that nature presents as unique combinations of animal, plant and microbial species in each and every habitat.

As Ed Wilson so succinctly puts it — the diversity of life

What diversity can make happen

A soccer team made up of 11 goalkeepers would not be likely to win many games.

Equally a soccer team without specialist goalkeeper is at a big disadvantage.

The best soccer team has balance with each players skill matched to the positions they play in the team — powerful central defenders, fast skillful wingers, and imaginative ballplayers in midfield.

Biodiversity is really the combination of players in the team of nature. Many different individual organisms from many species combine together to make ecosystems work the way that they do. The result is a system of primary production and nutrient cycling that is both efficient and stable under the set of local soil, climate and disturbance conditions.

Evolution is the process that combines with environmental conditions to select the team and is unbiased putting together combinations species best suited to the conditions by applying natural selection to weed out those species not good enough.

A bit like cream rising to the top.

Natural selection leaves the species most suited [adapted] to perform most efficiently in more-making and so make the best of the conditions to convert energy and nutrients into biomass and then to cycle the energy and biomass around — it generate amazing efficiency. Should a species become inefficient or fall away, another will be there to take over.

A bare patch of ground will not stay bare for long unless it is too hot or dry for plants to survive.

Diversity allows for rapid response to disturbance that helps maintain efficiency. Modest disturbances are absorbed by the species present. They bend and adapt their behaviours or growth patterns. The recovery of eucalyptus species after a fire is extraordinary.

Major disturbance knocks some species out but their space and roles are rapidly filled by other species.

The importance of biodiversity is in providing this resilience to disturbance, the ability of the system to bounce back to efficient more-making, usually very quickly.

Ecosystem services

Humans have taken this property of nature and we have commandeered it for our own more-making.

The processes that maintain net primary production that nature does so effortlessly we now call ecosystem services — food, fibre, clean water, fresh air.

It is really biodiversity working to provide us with goods and services that we use

We have modified nature somewhat, channeling primary production into the crops, timber and livestock that we most value, but even with the importance of agriculture, we still rely on biodiversity to pull it all together.

A wheatfield might look like a biodiversity desert but even here the diversity of soil biology is delivering the services at the microscopic scale.

wheatfield in western Australia

A symbol for our conscience

The formal definition of biodiversity presented in 1992 at the first Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro and adopted in the United Nation Convention on Biological Diversity is...

"Biological diversity" means the variability among living organisms from all sources including, inter alia, terrestrial, marine and other aquatic ecosystems and the ecological complexes of which they are part; this includes diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems"

And very soon there was much political and media talk about biodiversity and especially biodiversity loss. This was before we were consumed by the moral challenge of anthropogenic climate change.

This was a great opportunity for environmentalism. A pet topic was in the news and passionate advocates were soon on the case.

Biodiversity quickly became synonymous with conservation and particularly with the conservation of iconic species.

Protecting threatened species was now the importance of biodiversity.

Save biodiversity and you would save the whale. And, logically, this is true.

What happened though was a tired, and for many people, a nice but not critical issue of saving koalas hijacked the term biodiversity. And people did not get the real message of the importance of biodiversity being the things that matter to them like cheap, fresh food and clean water.

So biodiversity became a symbol for conservation and a word we could use to ease our conscience.

The environmental issue

The environmental issue with the importance of biodiversity is that we still do not realize what or how important biodiversity is to our way of life and our numerical success.

In other words we take it for granted.

We deplete it without thought and rely on hidden biodiversity [especially in soils] that we have not fully catalogued, let alone understood.

This is one of those true global environmental issues that is born in our minds and translates into our behaviours.

And it is one we can and need to fix.

museum collections are the primary catalogues of the worlds biodiversity | rodents from Botswana in the Bulawayo museum, Zimbabwe

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