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Explainer: what is biodiversity and why does it matter?

“Why should I care about biodiversity?” This is a valid question, particularly in a world that faces a changing climate. In addition, there are other things to worry about such as global food shortages…

Biodiversity supports all life on Earth…including yours. Bas Boerman

“Why should I care about biodiversity?” This is a valid question, particularly in a world that faces a changing climate. In addition, there are other things to worry about such as global food shortages, getting the kids to school on time and exercising.

What is biodiversity?

One simple but profound answer is that all of us need to breathe, drink and eat. These are all benefits that are fundamentally provided by biodiversity. But the reasons to pause and consider the value of maintaining our country’s biodiversity are broader than this.

First of all, what exactly do we mean by biodiversity? Biodiversity collectively describes the vast array of approximately 9 million unique living organisms (including Homo sapiens) that inhabit the earth, together with the interactions amongst them.

The concept includes every species of bacteria, virus, plant, fungi, and animal, as well as the diversity of genetic material within each species. It also encompasses the diverse ecosystems the species make up and the ongoing evolutionary processes that keep them functioning and adapting.

We can’t get by without it

Without these organisms, ecosystems and ecological processes, human societies could not exist. They supply us with oxygen and clean water. They cycle carbon and fix nutrients. They enable plants to grow and therefore to feed us, keep pest species and diseases in check and help protect against flooding and regulate the climate.

Loss of species could compromise the ecosystem services we rely on. CSIRO

These benefits are known as ecosystem services. A functioning natural world also provides a living for farmers, fishers, timber-workers and tourism operators to name but a few. So biodiversity keeps us alive, but there are other less tangible benefits.

Recreation such as fishing or hiking, the aesthetic beauty of the natural world and our spiritual connection with nature; the cultural values we place on plants and animals such as the kangaroo and emu on the Australian coat of arms - these are all benefits of biodiversity.

Research suggests that natural environments have direct and positive impacts on human well-being, despite the highly-urbanised modern lifestyles that most of us live. Mental-health benefits from exercising in natural environments have been are greater than those gained by exercising in the synthetic environment of the gym. Mood and self-esteem benefits are even greater if water is present.

The value that humans gain from biodiversity reminds us that, despite being predominantly urban, we are still intrinsically part of the natural world. We are a component of and therefore dependent on the ecosystem. This has led to the global concerns around anthropogenic biodiversity loss.

Biodiversity in decline

Changes in surrounding biodiversity affect all of us. Unlike other species however, we have the chance to determine what these effects might be. In considering our role in biodiversity, there is some good news and some bad news.

Let’s start with the bad. Globally, biodiversity is in rapid decline. The explosion of the human population from 2 to 7 billion in just 100 years has caused the extinction of many species.

Scientists agree that the earth is experiencing its first anthropogenic climate-driven global extinction event. They also agree that this is happening at a rate too fast for species to adapt. CSIRO research shows that by 2070, the impacts of climate change on Australia’s biodiversity will be widespread and extreme.

Biodiversity is having trouble keeping up with climate change. Willem van Aken

This loss of biodiversity is concerning because of the growing consensus that it goes hand-in-hand with a reduction in the stability and productivity of ecosystems. The result may be that the services on which we rely could be compromised in damaging ways.

Indeed CSIRO’s new report Our Future World 2012 recognises biodiversity decline as one of the megatrends that could severely impact Australia over the coming decades.

We have the science: policy is the next step

And the good news? In Australia, we are well-placed to meet the challenge of biodiversity management head-on. We have substantial national scientific expertise to draw on. On the global scale we have a good record of effective interaction between science and policy. The latter is particularly important.

Considering why biodiversity is important to you - is it so you can snorkel the Great Barrier Reef? Marie Davies

To halt the decline in biodiversity across the continent, we must translate accumulated knowledge on biodiversity into government policy. This can be done through programs and on-the-ground management. Tough decisions need to be made about where to invest, what to manage, and which approach to take.

These decisions can be emotionally and politically charged. Navigating the complex environmental, economic and political values can be extremely challenging.

Good resources for good policy

Despite these challenges there are things we can do. Australian scientists are actively developing better ways to support good governance and effective investment for improved conservation decision-making.

  • The Environmental Decision hub of the Australian Government’s National Environmental Research Program is tackling gaps in environmental decision-making, monitoring and adaptive management. One of the hub’s projects assessed approaches to species relocation in Australia. Relocation is becoming more prevalent as species experience habitat loss due to impacts such as climate change. The scientists developed guidelines to improve relocation’s success rates.

  • The Atlas of Living Australia brings together Australia’s biological information online, making it quicker and easier to undertake biodiversity assessments (or just look up a species you’re interested in). It has 33 million records and is growing by the day.

  • A collaborative project between Indigenous Protected Area (IPA) managers, traditional owners, the Australian government, and CSIRO developed guidelines for IPA management plans. These connect traditional knowledge, law and customs with international systems for protected area management.

We urge you to take a moment and consider biodiversity. Debate about the value of biodiversity both globally and to you as an individual will help clarify society’s objectives for biodiversity management. It will ensure that the changes we make help to conserve our natural assets for future generations.

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16 Comments sorted by

  1. Bruce Moon

    Bystander!

    Steve, Andy & Mark.

    A great article.

    I suggest it should be compulsory reading as part of the secondary school agenda.

    - - -

    The issue of biodiversity is relatively simple to comprehend.

    However, decisions emanating from our political and legal 'system' fail miserably to address biodiversity.

    From my experience, the assessment process designed to ensure biodiversity is maintained also fails this topic. Here, I refer to the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). Biodiversity is implicit, but not the explicit focus.

    One solution could be that biodiversity form the core of EIA. And, that all assessment processes report on the negative impact/s towards the present biodiversity (not only on/for the subject site, but also the applicable regional catchment).

    Cheers

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  2. Mark Carter

    logged in via Facebook

    I'm not sure any of the arguments given here will carry much weight with politicians, or most voters for that matter. The technocratic angle to the problems posed and the solutions claimed doesn't help either- to succeed wildlife conservation needs to seriously engage the public, not simply ask them to applaud the experts (and pay for it all) from the sidelines.
    As a country our elites are encouraging us to trade Australian species- each one the unique outcome of 4 billion years of evolution- for the promise of better iPads and Prados, luxury McMansions and jet skis. No amount of websites, expert reports or nature-theamed indigenous welfare projects will change that.

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  3. Geoff Russell

    Computer Programmer, Author

    I'm having trouble reconciling the mention of fishing in the context of preserving biodiversity.

    Anything is sustainable if hardly anybody does it, so where does that leave
    fishing?

    Most of the fish eaten in Australia comes from somewhere else ... most people who eat it don't care where. Fish produced locally does not meet current demand let alone the demand of eating patterns like the CSIRO Total Wellbeing Diet which recommended that Australians double their fish intake.

    The 2009 FAO…

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  4. Michael McCarthy

    ARC Future Fellow at University of Melbourne

    I agree that we need broader societal engagement in biodiversity issues - it is important that people are informed about the benefits of biodiversity, and help set objectives, something that we touched on in a recent piece in The Conversation (https://theconversation.edu.au/the-public-should-help-decide-which-species-to-save-and-which-to-let-go-7331). There are choices to be made, and an informed public needs to help make those choices, because I doubt the world currently has the resources to conserve…

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    1. Eclipse Now

      Manager of Graphic Design firm

      In reply to Michael McCarthy

      Yes Michael, well put. Before we even get to the horrors of climate change there are what I call the 6 p's of ecocide: Paving Over, Ploughing Up, Pests, Pollutants, Population-growth, and Preying on Predators. Urban expansion, farmland expansion, the introduction of pests, toxic pollutants and heavy metals bioaccumulating up various food-chains, the sheer number of us over-consuming everything, and our predilection for preying on higher order predators like big cats, sharks, bears, wolves (Yellowstone!) etc, all spell disaster for biodiversity and ecosystem services. Which is why I'm a fan of New Urbanism and Nuclear power. Nukes avoid the forest thinning of wind turbines and distributed energy systems. Want to reduce biodiversity in a forest? First put a road through there to service some remote wind turbines. That'll do the trick!

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  5. Dale Bloom

    Analyst

    Excellent.

    However, biodiversity is so complex, I don’t believe humans can fully understand the connections and dependencies between species.

    Best to leave the natural world alone as much as possible, which basically means more national parks, and smaller populations of human.

    For Australia to want to double its population by 2050 is beyond all rationality, and beyond all decency and regard for the natural world.

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  6. James Jenkin

    EFL Teacher Trainer

    The article makes a strong case that biodiversity is in decline.

    Yet the assertion that 'we can’t get by without it' isn't backed by evidence.

    Despite shocking economic vandalism, China lifted 600 million people out of poverty between 1981 and 2004 (http://www.guardian.co.uk/global-development/poverty-matters/2011/jun/29/authoritarian-model-development).

    So it's more complex. It's easy to say the richness of our affluent lives in Australia is threatened by environmental destruction. But destroying forests and wiping out species can be good for people who have very little.

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    1. Joe Ekman

      Extension specialist

      In reply to James Jenkin

      I agree. I read this article because I am interested in the specific evidence for 'biodiversity is a good thing' but there is only an affirmation of belief here. Please provide the research evidence, not opinion.

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    2. George Crisp

      Medical Practitioner

      In reply to Joe Ekman

      If you accept that "ecosystem services" are a "good thing, and you know enough basic natural science to know that the complex mix of different species ( otherwise known as biodiversity ) makes up those ecosystems, then it should be fairly apparent as to why "biodiversity is a good thing". As the authors have pointed out, bu providing clean air water, food, shelter etc, natural services are more than a than a "good thing", they are our our life support system.

      This talk by Dr Aaron Bernstein ( Paediatrician / Public Health at Harvard Med School ) is provides quite a good summary of the implications for human health from biodiversity loss: http://www.themonthly.com.au/human-health-implications-biodiversity-loss-aaron-bernstein-2446

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  7. John Knowles Stretch

    Arid Rangeland resident

    An article with a comprehensive scope and relatively simple core tenet:
    biodiversity is a sound surrogate for environment health.

    Sad then that James Jenkin and James Ekman together apply their evident intelligence, so as to question the core tenet.

    China's 'turnaround' since 1981 is merely a relatively local and recent demonstration of human societal transformaton, from largely 'rural-agrarian' to 'urban-industrial'. The transformation has been achieved through an unsustainable degree of exploitation/sequestration: of finite (global) soil resource, terrestial space; fossil (global) carbon store and (global) mineral heritage.

    As human society grows, its capacity to 'harvest' accumulated (fossil and living) bio-resource and mineral-resource is typically greatly enhanced. However this harvesting is typically at rates that defy "sustainability" and at a scale that considerably-damages the capacity of the global biosphere to replenish.

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  8. Tim Beshara

    Executive Officer

    I found this article to have a somewhat naive approach to biodiversity policy. Perhaps it was a sub-editing issue but I find the headline "We have the science: policy is the next step" to be very silly.

    It (and the broader connotations of the article) imply a vacuum of biodiversity policy and biodiversity action, like the science is awesome, but no one is doing anything about it.

    Are the authors unaware of our National Reserve System, its expansion and the work that goes on inside our parks…

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  9. James Sanders

    logged in via email @gmail.com

    This is definitely a conversation we need to have more often with many contributors.

    This article emphasises that biodiversity should be preserved for utilitarian reasons. Some life certainly should, but the connection can't always be made. In the latter case, justifying preservation of species requires more than a scientific argument. We also need the voices of naturalists, farmers and indigenous land managers - basically those on the margins of our hyper-urban population.

    The current loss of biodiversity is definitely a symptom of population, industrial and agricultural expansion. In terms of policy, we need economic theory to be constrained by limits to growth as much as we need to develop the concept of 'ecosystem services'!

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  10. Andy Sheppard

    Theme Leader, Biodiversity at CSIRO

    Comments on our article have been diverse and challenging, and we thank you for your interest. Responses follow on a number of comments.

    • Bruce Moon’s comment about the potential for biodiversity to be a much more solid basis to Environmental Impact Assessments is a view that CSIRO supports. Industries generally recognise the need for this, as do governments (e.g. the Western Australian Government). All agree, though, that quick, objective and efficient ways of measuring biodiversity…

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    1. John Knowles Stretch

      Arid Rangeland resident

      In reply to Andy Sheppard

      Thank you Andy but please, it is unproductive for science to too readily excuse the limited capacity of humans to "grasp connection". For as I sought to explain, "diversity" is a surrogate for effective and continuing efficient natural process. Without which life-as-we-know-it will fail to thrive.

      Consider in isolation, merely the finite topic of soil health. For soil is the critical interface through which rainfall is converted to biomass. This is fact, notwithstanding any "urban lifestyle…

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