Engaging hearts and minds to reverse the biodiversity crisis

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Lets us be in no doubt – we are in the midst of the greatest biodiversity crisis the world has ever seen. The rate of extinction today is greater than at any other time in the history of life on earth.  The last 2 thousand years has also been recognized as a new geological period – the Anthropocene (see earlier post here) – the period when humans are having an overarching influence on the trajectory of the environment and biodiversity.

The reasons for this decline aren’t rocket science and are largely due to habitat fragmentation, invasive species and climate change. If species are to stop going extinct they will need large enough areas to maintain healthy populations.

But why aren’t we doing more to protect species from extinction?

The forgotten value of biodiversity

For millennia the fate of humans has been closely tied with the fate of the ecosystems around them. The collapse of ecosystems meant the collapse of human civilizations dependent on them, and so sustainability had to be a way of life. Examples of major civilization collapse due to ecosystem collapse include Angkor Wat, stronghold of the Khmer empire, and the moai-building inhabitants of Easter Island.

In the past humans have had to live in harmony with biodiversity in order to live and prosper. And whilst I’m not religious, I appreciate the sentiment in the bible that God gave dominion for the beasts of the earth to man. In the original Hebrew translation, dominion as a word was selected to reflect the idea of protection of God’s creatures, rather than exploitation.

Collective amnesia

Many of us still feel that destroying nature is a bad thing, but the ‘bleeding heart’ conservation argument now doesn’t seem to hold much weight. Some have even called for the recognition of a new international law, ‘ecocide’ – to punish those that deliberately destroy and send species extinct – but this call has largely fallen on deaf ears.

The influence of religious and ethical doctrines that have supported sustainability in the past are now waning in our society. So in our new godless, morality-free, non-ethically constrained, but information rich society, how do we justify protecting and supporting biodiversity and ecosystems?

Value in the modern era

As with everything else these days we need to justify the value of biodiversity and ecosystems. One way this has been done is through the recognition of ecosystem services.

We gain huge benefits from ecosystems in terms of clean air and water, carbon sequestration, pest and pathogen control, prevention of soil erosion and pollination services. We also owe a debt to ecosystems due to the provision of food and many of the medicines that we rely on today.

In the seminal paper by Bob Constanza and co authors in 1997, the annual global value of ecosystem services were estimated at $33 Trillion, double the global domestic product. By comparison the recently estimated cost of meeting global biodiversity conservation targets is less than half a percent of this, at $76 Billion.

Opinion vs evidence based understanding

These figures would seem to make a compelling case to sustainably manage and conserve our ecosystems and biodiversity. However the exact way in which these numbers were calculated has been hotly contested. So too are the extinction statistics and the influence of human activity on the fate of biodiversity, particularly in the area of climate change.

In fact in most areas of science there is debate, and that is a good thing.

It is the job of science to move from an opinion-based view of the world to test systematically the various hypotheses and to arrive at an evidence-based understanding of the world.

We all have ideas about how the world works, but unless these ideas are tested then they will just remain opinions, and as Clint Eastwood in the Dirty Harry films says ‘opinions are like arseholes – everyone has one.’

Making science count

If scientists are to enter the debate on biodiversity decline here are some key considerations to get maximum impact.

K.I.S.S. (keep it simple, stupid) – Scientists have a responsibility to present their work in an easy to understand way. Reducing information into easy to understand diagrams and written pieces is now an essential part of communicating science. Presenting on findings publically and distributing key facts through social media also helps to get the message across. The balance to get though is to communicate clearly but accurately and not paper over significant issues if some have come to light during research projects, which leads onto my next point.

Standing on the shoulders of giants – Scientists have a responsibility to present the information accurately. Isaac Newton famously said ‘I stand on the shoulders of giants.’ Meaning that his findings were only possible due to the good work of his predecessors, without a solid reputable base, our understanding is built on a house of cards. Publishing data along with scientific papers makes it possible for others to independently test and verify findings. New research may overturn previous ideas or findings, but if we can’t build on the ideas and research of the past then we can’t progress the debate.

Relativity – Incorporating ideas of a topical nature is always going to help with the communication of ideas and will also help get that research resourced.

How to communicate biodiversity science

Biodiversity needs to be managed for its own value, but the management of systems needs to be based on evidence-based principles that recognize change as a key part of systems.

Room needs to be made for biodiversity in the landscape. In many parts of Australia the highest biodiversity value is often in the places with the highest agricultural productivity. Simple rules of thumb for landscape management (e.g. 30-40% of landscapes should have some native habitat cover) need to be developed.

The value and human health benefits of ecosystems needs to be emphasized and included in conservation planning that promotes triple bottom line (improved conservation, increased productivity, human health) outcomes.

A message from the heart

But arguments based on logic will only get the science debate so far. It is widely recognized that the climate change debate has become so intense due to the collision of logical vs emotional positions taken by the different camps.

If we are to make progress in tackling the biodiversity crisis we need to drive a re-appreciation of nature. An important part of this is to get people back into nature for an immersive experience. The value of this experience has been widely promoted for children through initiatives such as NaturePlay. Indeed the negative consequences of not spending time in nature, termed nature deficit disorder, is also now broadly recognized, particularly for children.

So a combination of logical arguments together with reigniting emotional attachment, winning minds AND hearts, will be required to reverse the biodiversity crisis.

Maybe only then will we start to remember the value of nature.

Talk given at Science in the Pub, 6th Feb 2015, organised in association with RIAus


  1. Whilst I appreciate what you’re trying to say here and I’m broadly in agreement, I would question the statement that “In the past humans have had to live in harmony with biodiversity in order to live and prosper.” Actually there are lots of examples of past societies squandering their natural resources and hunting species to extinction, sometimes to their own detriment. The idea that our ancestors lived “in harmony” with nature is a myth. The tragedy is that we’ve not learned from those past mistakes and continue to make them.

    1. Hi jeff
      Thanks for that
      Yes I think I would agree that there are many examples where societies have negatively impacted on ecosystems through over extraction and certainly couldn’t be considered in harmony
      I guess as the human population has grown and extent of natural ecosystems reduced the ability to buffer over extraction and impact has declined

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