The case against the concept of biodiversity

CONTROVERSY: Challenging the Concept of Biodiversity

“The most common way to measure biodiversity is to count the number of species in a certain place, also known as “species richness.” But critics question the usefulness of this number and argue that the concept has always been fuzzy, even to scientists, akin to a “new linguistic bottle for the wine of old ideas.”

A handful of scientists want to do away with the term biodiversity altogether — and have been trying to do so since the late 1990s. The concept, they say, is hard to quantify, hard to track globally over time, and actually isn’t an indication of what people commonly picture as a “healthy” ecosystem. (Scientists are generally reluctant to describe ecosystems in terms of “healthy” or “unhealthy,” which are value judgments.)

Last year, the United Nations reported that the world has failed to reach even one of the major biodiversity conservation targets it had set for itself in 2010. In the face of accelerating species and habitat loss, countries are now committing to protecting 30 percent of land and water by 2030. This fall, 193 nations are set to attend the virtual Convention on Biological Diversity to hash out a plan to stop biodiversity loss. (A draft of that plan was published last month.) In the US, the Biden administration has proposed its own game-changing approach to nature conservation. Meanwhile, a coronavirus pandemic that may have begun in animals reminds us that we are fundamentally linked to the animals in these critical habitats.

Against this backdrop, a new generation of scientists is taking up the debate about what to do about “biodiversity” itself — the scientific concept, its popular understanding, and indeed the very word. As Allington told Vox: “There’s just a lot of drama.”



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