Biowealth – a lexical leap forward for biodiversity appreciation

17 12 2010

Here’s a little idea I’ve been kicking around in my head that I’d like to invite you to debate. Call it an ‘Open Thread’ in the spirit of BraveNewClimate.com’s successful series.

© The Economist

Let’s face it, ‘biodiversity’ is a slippery and abstract concept for most people. Hell, even most ecologists have a hard time describing what biodiversity means. To the uninitiated, it seems simple enough. It’s just the number of species, isn’t it?

Well, no. It isn’t.

Unfortunately, it’s far, far more complicated. First, the somewhat arbitrary pigeon-holing of organisms into Linnaean taxonomic boxes doesn’t really do justice to the genetic gradients within species, among populations and even between individuals. We use the pigeon-hole taxonomy because it’s convenient, that’s all. Sure, molecular genetics has revolutionised the concept, but to most people, a kangaroo is a kangaroo, a robin is a robin and an earthworm is an earthworm. Hierarchical Linnaean taxonomy prevails.

Then there’s the more prickly issue of α, β and γ diversity. α diversity essentially quantifies species richness within a particular area, whereas β diversity is the difference in α diversity between ecosystems. γ diversity is used to measure overall diversity for the different constituent ecosystems of a region. Scale is very, very important (see our recent book chapter for more on this).

And of course the number of species itself is probably the most unsubtle, sledge-hammer, Neolithic, accounting-like metric that exists. Species richness generally ignores endemism, species turnover, rarity, phylogenetic diversity, genetic diversity, ecosystem resilience, ecological function, trophic interactions, and ecological redundancy. Those are probably some of the major contenders to measure ‘biodiversity’. There are plenty of papers that deal with the issue, and I’ve discussed some of the problems and nuances in past posts (see here, here, here).

As stipulated above, it’s not really a clear concept. So it’s no wonder that Baz and Sheila Bloggs really can’t identify with ‘biodiversity’, because they really have no idea what it is, how it’s measured, and how much it’s worth.

And as I continually bang on about what biodiversity means to humanity in this blog in terms of health, wealth, prosperity, sustainability and happiness, it’s essential that we get the ‘worth’ aspect of biodiversity across better. I’ve reported before that biodiversity loss is the ugly cousin of climate change – the latter has such as catchy (and unfortunately, politically loaded) ring to it, and it hangs out with other cool-named kids like ‘global warming’, ‘greenhouse gases’ and ‘peak oil’. Poor, ugly little ‘biodiversity’ doesn’t have a chance.

That’s why I’m proposing that we abandon the term entirely and go instead for ‘biowealth’. To me this sums up all the importance of biodiversity, doesn’t necessarily have to lean on the ‘diversity’ (i.e., ‘how much’) crutch, and can immediately instil a sense of innate necessity. Without biowealth, we are, well, poor.

I know that ‘biowealth’ has been used before, but mainly in the context of bioprospecting or natural resource exploitation. Other analogous terms include ‘biocapital‘ and ‘natural capital’, but I think these really put too much emphasis on the money aspect, and not on the ‘wealth’ per se. I guess my point is that the ‘wealth’ aspect is much more than just the market value. Because ‘biowealth’ also conjures the image of making money from natural resources. This could be something of a two-edged sword, because it might be misconstrued as a natural justification for unsustainable exploitation of timber, peat, wildlife, et cetera. That said, most people don’t appreciate the immense potential wealth of millions of yet-to-be-assayed species under the umbrella of bioprospecting. I personally think the pros would vastly outweigh the cons.

Biowealth could also be incorporated into our daily lives more easily because it meshes better with other commonly cited metrics. We hear about unemployment rates, stock market indices and gold prices almost nightly on what passes for ‘news’ on the idiot box these days. Why not report a biowealth index each night as well? Cities, regions, states, provinces and countries could also flaunt their biowealth relative to their neighbours.

I’m keen to hear your thoughts. This could end up being an interesting paper if we garner enough interest.

CJA Bradshaw


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24 responses

6 05 2014
Australian League of Environmental Organisations | ConservationBytes.com

[…] e-mails), (2) don’t vote for the Coalition and (3) if you’re a scientist, place some economic or well-being value on environmental processes so that even politicians can understand that maintaining ecosystems makes good economic sense, I […]

4 12 2013
Biowealth: all creatures great and small | ConservationBytes.com

[…] – all creatures great and small”, which is in direct reference to a concept I’ve proposed before that “… without biodiversity we are poor. With it we are ‘biorich’.” Often […]

27 09 2013
Too small to avoid catastrophic biodiversity meltdown | ConservationBytes.com

[…] job, just show them this study. ‘Big’ is essential if we want any hope of maintaining biowealth into the […]

25 07 2013
Edd Hind (@edd_hind)

I am no biodiversity calculation expert, so I don’t want my lack of knowledge to pollute this debate, but one thing I do like about your suggestion is that it addresses the limited ethical scope of previous ecosystem-based management. The idea of having healthy biodiversity leads policy-makers to create outcome-based policies – the type of policy that is always hard to implement and enforce as people have different ideas of what a good outcome. Your idea of ‘ecowealth’ focuses not on an outcome, but on and intentions. Policy that focused on intention and couldn’t be measured in terms of outcome is less likely to meet obstacles. I think your idea also emphasizes ecocentrism, which is no bad thing is this primarily anthropocentric world.

18 07 2013
Guilty until proven innocent | ConservationBytes.com

[…] research indicates that it’s almost entirely absent from society’s general approach to biowealth […]

28 01 2013
Having more tree species makes us wealthier « ConservationBytes.com

[...] And I’m not talking about the esoteric or ‘spiritual’ richness that the hippies dribble about around the campfire after a few dozen cones pulled off the bong (I’ll let the confused among you try to work the meaning of that one out by yourselves), I’m talking about real money (incorporated into my concept of ‘biowealth‘). [...]

28 11 2012
Biodiversidad. ¿Más o menos? II « Cantabricus

[...] loss of biodiversity by 2010 ( No. 5).  [3] Mientras escribía estas líneas, entró por Twitter un texto de Corey Bradshaw con argumentos similares. Se ve que lo de la biodiversidad le rasca a más [...]

4 08 2012
The invisible hand of ecosystem services « ConservationBytes.com

[...] we need a new name for starters. I’ve previously introduced ‘biowealth‘ as an alternative to ‘biodiversity’, but that hasn’t yet taken off. [...]

24 01 2011
Condoms instead of nature reserves « ConservationBytes.com

[...] change and so do circumstances. But growth continues and natural capital [my addendum: see my post on this term and others] shrinks. And things are not even desperate [...]

30 12 2010
Celeste Gonzalez

Great idea. The term biowealth has the duel usefulness of being able to encompass both the importance of healthy, functional ecosystems in sustaining human life and wellbeing, as well as the ecosystem services they provide. Conventional economics too often rules environmental management debates – one only needs to look at the current shemozzle surrounding the Murray-Darling Basin Plan to see evidence of this. The media almost never mentions either the immediate or long-term costs (in dollars) of inaction when it comes to protecting ecosystems. If we can incorporate the market and non-market values of ecosystem services in dollar terms, defined simply as biowealth, there is a real chance to fight back using economics. So much money is diverted from the conventional market to try to compensate for losses of ecosystem services as it is. That’s on top of health, recreation and the many other non-dollar values which are part of our biowealth too.

24 12 2010
Keith Farnsworth

Can one word do so many jobs? That seems to be the nub of this issue. Scientists need a term to describe the diversity of life within a space, but most of us recognise that this measures something important and in rapid decline world-wide. So we want it also to be a general and political term. One word could do both jobs only if the concept was very simple – as you say, it’s a long way from that. I suggest we have a more precise term for science and a separate set of terms for the debate in politics.
For the science, I suggest biocomplexity to specifically mean the density of functional information embodied in life. Information is the measure of total difference, but much of this total is random noise. Conversely, functional information is that which makes life work as it does, on scales from molecule to ecosystem. Our technical biodiversity measures are all estimators of this information. Now being so honest about the scientific meaning leaves no doubt about its unsuitability for a political debate.
In which case, I think a term with resistance to hijacking by neo-classical economists is needed, and this is where I am not comfortable with any kind of ‘-wealth’ term, though I endorse the spirit of your suggestion.
To me, Biowealth strongly implies the stock of biological stuff in an area, which is too easily interpreted as biomass, too easily owned and too easily sold, discounted and substituted. Indeed, confounding the complexity which biodiversity strictly measures, with the stuff – species, beauty, productivity – that people value, this is the principle confusion of biodiversity. For all those things, perhaps it would be simpler and more honest to just say ‘life’ or ‘nature’ (like we did before 1980).
Ecologists then need to explain and emphasise that life is a complex system, needing all its parts and complexity to work. The strong species-counting focus of the past 30 years has led to aberrations, like the “Noah’s Ark problem” in which resources are directed at maximising the ‘diversity’ of preserved species without any consideration of the way communities are composed and work as living things. Because of this, zoos and seed-banks have seriously been suggested as adequate substitutes for real biodiversity. Let us make it clear that nothing is truly alive unless it is able to interact with its natural biotic environment and that necessarily means preserving the whole of life. After all, we are just a part of it ourselves.

24 12 2010
Carlos Ferreira

First, I agree that anything that allows people to better understand the importance of conservation is a good thing. Much of useful is motivated by people taking an interest into stuff they previously didn’t know about/understood.

I like the idea of the concept for another reason: we’re talking about two levels of “measurement” here, if you will: one relates to the physical/biological reality (biodiversity probably works well as a term here), the other to its translation in terms of social and – yes – economic worth. So, bioworth could indeed work there.

The more complicated point I have to raise is, beyond the concept and necessary lexical simplification, how do we harness it for the objective we share – conservation? It’s a (valuable) step in a long path.

21 12 2010
Duan Biggs

What is the difference between ‘biowealth’ and ‘ecosystem services’
which in my understanding was coined to also connect more with the
mainstream?

20 12 2010
Felix Whitton

This is something we’ve been wrestling with as a (UK-based) conservation-orientated Foundation.

To me, having been indoctrinated over several years and two ecology degrees, the term biodiversity makes intrinsic sense. To my trustees, however, who don’t have a background in ecology, they find the term (and the cringe-worthy UN definition) appalling and off-putting. Even more so ‘ecosystem services’, ‘natural capital’, et al.

Now I’m not saying they represent the masses out there. And I also acknowledge that ecosystem services as a concept is a good one, if nothing else for highlighting the wealth generated by nature for the world’s poor beyond what can simply be monetised and traded.

But what my trustees found most off-putting about the term biodiversity was the way it jarred with their values, of nature as something intrinsically valuable, not as a technocratic definition. Biodiversity simply doesn’t describe or include the enormous cultural, aesthetic or spiritual connection that most people who care about nature feel (at least here in the UK).

Hence, when asked what biodiversity is most people respond ‘a washing powder’…

It’s great that you’re having this debate, but my feeling is that simply re-branding nature from biodiversity to biowealth does not address the underlying causes of the problem: a failure of education and a widespread disconnect from nature.

20 12 2010
Salvador Herrando-Pérez

‘Biowealth’ could be welcome as a new term providing: (i) it has an ‘exact definition’, and (ii) it can alleviate the semantic inflation of the other term ‘biodiversity’. I will not argue whether ‘biodiversity’ is the humble companion of ‘climate change’ in the political agenda, but within ecology it has been and still is a trendy concept (> 30 000 hits in SCI). The literature has a good number of examples wrestling to give a definition of ‘biodiversity’ (e.g. Harper & Hawksworth 1994, DeLong 1996, Weber & Word 2001, Hamilton 2005, Ricotta 2005, Sarkar 2006, Jurasinski et al. 2009). Adams et al. (1997) describe an ‘audience effect’ whereby the frequency of terms such as ‘biodiversity’ was clearly skewed towards a group of journals amenable to funding agencies, politicians and the general public. Guilarov (1996) argues that “from the very beginning, the use of ‘biodiversity’ was connected with politics and environmental technology rather than with the science itself” and that this term exemplifies the disguise of science as technology or even mythology “to procure the money for subsistence”. So terminology enters the lands of ethics, and ‘biowealth’ would not be exempt from these caveats.
My two cents: (1) I would suggest that the splittering of current ecological terms and concepts is done within a general idea of forging a ‘code of ecological nomenclature’, a taxonomy of terms that emphasizes general understanding and prevents the fragmentation of ideas and concepts by individual points of view (by allowing authors to make their own definitions of terms, journals and editors are jeopardizing communication among ecologists and disciplines: to what extent discrepancies among authors are a problem of form (i.e. terminology) more than a problem of content (meaning)?). (2) Everyone can ponder whether massaging a charismatic terminology is justifiable when vital research funding is at stake. With computer development and digital data bases, terminology is quantifiable, and ingenuity is required to design methods that can measure to what extent colourful language, not necessarily linked to good science, arbitrates research funding success, and high-profiled publication output (Would results from these potential studies be embarrassing for our discipline?).

Salva

ADAMS D. C., DIBITETTI M. S., JANSON C. H., SLOBODKIN L. B. & VALENZUELA N. 1997. An ”audience effect” for ecological terminology: use and misuse of jargon. Oikos 80, 632-636.
DELONG D. C. 1996. Defining Biodiversity. Wildlife Society Bulletin 24, 738-749.
GHILAROV A. 1996. What does ‘biodiversity’ mean – scientific problem or convenient myth? Trends in Ecology and Evolution 11, 304-306.
HAMILTON A. J. 2005. Species diversity or biodiversity? Journal of Environmental Management 75, 89-92.
HARPER J. L. & HAWKSWORTH D. L. 1994. Biodiversity: measurement and estimation. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B 345, 5-12.
JURASINSKI G., RETZER V. & BEIERKUHNLEIN C. 2009. Inventory, differentiation, and proportional diversity: a consistent terminology for quantifying species diversity. Oecologia 159, 15-26.
RICOTTA C. 2005. Through the jungle of biological diversity. Acta Biotheoretica 53, 29-38.
SARKAR S. 2006. Ecological diversity and biodiversity as concepts for conservation planning: comments on Ricotta. Acta Biotheoretica 54, 133-140.
WEBER J. R. & WORD C. S. 2001. The communication process as evaluative context: what do nonscientists hear when scientists speak? Bioscience 51, 487-495.

19 12 2010
Kate

A survey would be interesting, especially if conducted in a range of locations across the world.

18 12 2010
Megan Evans

I’m going to play the devil’s advocate here – will a change of terminology really have any influence on people’s understanding of the importance of biodiversity? Using ‘biowealth’ or any other term may do no better in evoking human care for nature, if it’s really just the lack of knowledge or understanding of that value which is the key issue.

For example, does biodiversity really lead to greater wellbeing and happiness? While it seems to be the case that increasing wealth in rich countries doesn’t translate to increased happiness – is there evidence of declining happiness with biodiversity decline in those countries? I personally doubt it. I also suspect a lot of people would be perfectly OK with having a handful of species around – i.e chicken, pig and cow. Biodiversity decline and human wellbeing in poor nations is of course an entirely different story. I’m not aware of any work which has examined the relationship between biodiversity/ecosystem service decline and human wellbeing (other than at an aggregated, global scale) or say, Happy Life Years. I think there are still gaps in our evidence base for the importance of biodiversity in terms of human health, wealth, prosperity, sustainability and happiness – and that using a different term isn’t going to improve our knowledge of these relationships. Perhaps there is a need to focus more effort into describing and communicating the relationships between biodiversity and human wellbeing if what we are seeking is human behavioural change.

I’m also not convinced that biowealth is any easier to define than biodiversity – possibly less so – we can at least measure biodiversity to some degree, but how do you measure biowealth? I agree that we need a biodiversity/environmental indicator shown up on the telly with the Dow Jones and BHP stocks, but the challenge is developing the indicator itself (e.g Wentworth Group’s work on national environmental accounts), which can still happen without a name change. ‘Biodiversity’ might not be widely known, but people are aware of ‘species’, ‘nature’ and ‘the environment’ – in my experience they all mean the same thing to the lay person, so for that reason I’m sceptical that a new term will make someone care about all those things any more (if they don’t know why it’s important for them) simply because it ends in ‘-wealth’.

It could be worth testing – do a survey and ask people a) whether they know what biodiversity/biowealth is, b) what they think it means to them (then tell them – give the same definition) c) rate their concern/value for biodiversity/biowealth, d) see if there’s any difference.

17 12 2010
Tom Keen

Great idea. The term biowealth has the duel usefulness of being able to encompass both the importance of healthy, functional ecosystems in sustaining human life and wellbeing, as well as the ecosystem services they provide.

Conventional economics too often rules environmental management debates – one only needs to look at the current shemozzle surrounding the Murray-Darling Basin Plan to see evidence of this. The media almost never mentions either the immediate or long-term costs (in dollars) of inaction when it comes to protecting ecosystems. If we can incorporate the market and non-market values of ecosystem services in dollar terms, defined simply as biowealth, there is a real chance to fight back using economics. So much money is diverted from the conventional market to try to compensate for losses of ecosystem services as it is.

That’s on top of health, recreation and the many other non-dollar values which are part of our biowealth too.

17 12 2010
Euan Ritchie

My original post is below, there’s been stacks of replies, and a really broad ranging debate:

Hi everyone,

I have just returned from the Ecological Society of Australia meeting and among other issues, there was much discussion about the term biodiversity. Many people argue that this term is hard to define, and importantly, the public have no idea what it actually means and therefore they have less connection/concern to preserve/conserve species and habitats. I thought it would be interesting to hear how others define biodiversity, and if this term
isn’t helpful for conveying the importance of species diversity to the public, what term(s) should we use?

Over to you,

Euan

17 12 2010
CJAB

Thanks – maybe indicate to the listserv this post so people can comment directly.

17 12 2010
Euan Ritchie

Coincidentally I just posted on this issue on the ESA (America) discussion group list (ECOLOG-L@LISTSERV.UMD.EDU) a few days ago, and the response has been overwhelming! Clearly there are lots of us are thinking about this issue.

17 12 2010
CJAB

Can you reproduce what you sent here?

17 12 2010
Tweets that mention Biowealth – a lexical leap forward for biodiversity appreciation « ConservationBytes.com -- Topsy.com

[...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by ConservationBytes, ConservationBytes. ConservationBytes said: Biowealth – a lexical leap forward for biodiversity appreciation: http://wp.me/phhT4-1hQ [...]

18 12 2010
Pam Kimsey

I wasn’t really sure I like the term biowealth at first, because I feel ever so intrigued by the vast endless circle of the unknown that the term diverse or biodiverse implies to the yet undiscovered. In the way that the whole of mother na…ture flows and works together. But in your summary, the thought of an actual regular news report given along side the stock market report, I have to say yes to biowealth. What competition that would create among different parts of the world, to find themselves actually wanting to be more biodiverse than their neighbors LOL I love it!! I have to say, very well thought out!!

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