What is biodiversity and why is it important?


[Music plays] (Dr. Steve Morton) Biodiversity
is the web of life. Biodiversity is the full
variety of all the species that you see in the natural
environment around you, like these witchetty
bushes 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 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. [Music plays] The diversity of life, and the diversity of human appreciation of
it, is such that I think there’s at least five categories of values that we need to consider
in asking ourselves the question, or rather answering
the question 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
it 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, 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 a very difficult
to put any numbers 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 bush walk 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, or Sydney, or Melbourne. The fifth one, I have left it til 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. [Music plays] 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 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. [Music plays] So I think there are three challenges. First of all to understand, analyse,
and help deal with the ongoing decline in biodiversity. That’s
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 tradeoffs 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,
the 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. [Music plays]

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