The rise and fall of biodiversity

All around the world, biodiversity is being lost at an unprecedented rate. From an all-time peak in 2003, it has lost an incredible 40% in just over a decade. Although it is clinging on in certain places, the situation seems to be dire. How much longer can biodiversity survive?

This story sounds familiar to conservationists who are bombarded daily with depressing news about the biodiversity crisis. But in fact these statements have nothing to do with declines in the diversity of life on earth – they are about the use of the word ‘biodiversity’ itself. The statistics above are taken from Google Trends, a tool monitoring relative interest in general google search terms over time. Entering ‘biodiversity’ into this service reveals a steady decline between 2004 and 2008, followed by a fairly steady state since then.


So what is going on? Why did ‘biodiversity’ become so popular in the first place, why has interest in it been declining since 2003, and what might all this mean for the future of the conservation movement?

The story of the rise of biodiversity is a familiar one, told with great style by David Takacs in his classic book “The idea of biodiversity: Philosophies of Paradise” (1996). In it, Takacs interviews most of the key players who invented and disseminated the term during the heady days of the late 1980s that led up to the (long-form) ‘biological diversity’ getting its very own UN convention in 1993. Takacs identifies several key features of biodiversity that helped it to take off. First, it was seen as better than the words previously used to describe the objects of conservation (endangered species – too narrow; wilderness – too elitist; nature – too much etymological baggage). Second, it was seen as suitably scientific to suit the interests of those promoting it – “By scientizing the concept of nature, biologists aim to convince you both that the biodiversity crisis is grave and that they have special expertise in understanding and addressing it” (Takacs, 1996). Third, it was seen as suitably vague – “Biodiversity shines with the gloss of scientific respectability, while underneath it is kaleidoscopic and all-encompassing: we can find in it what we want, and can justify many courses of action in its name” (Takacs, 1996). Finally, it was new, which meant that it felt pleasingly cutting edge, and it also avoided problems of translation of existing terms between languages that afflicted ‘nature’ and ‘wilderness’ (the latter being very difficult to translate into Spanish, for example).

The early success of ‘biodiversity’ is reflected in statistics showing its use. It enjoyed a meteoric rise to success, with appearances in English language books searchable by Google NGram rising from zero in 1985 to their maximum in 2003 (this dataset only extends to 2004), and its presence in journal articles listed in Web of Science rising up to the present day. Biodiversity is now a widely accepted and recognised term that is embedded in journal and job titles, research institutions and national and international law.



However, as we have seen, biodiversity has had a mixed record since 2003 – seemingly losing popular appeal (as measured through web searches) even as it has continued to gain ground in academic discourse. What might explain these divergent outcomes?

First, biodiversity’s diverse meanings have proven a curse as well as a blessing, because they make it difficult to translate the concept into specific ideas that people can make sense of. This is exemplified by the tangled relationship between biodiversity and its sister concept ‘ecosystem services’, within which, as Mace and colleagues have pointed out, biodiversity can feature as an underlying ecosystem process, a final ecosystem service or a good in its own right.

Second, the word biodiversity is (perhaps deliberately?) confusing, particularly for non-technical audiences. Famously, this includes then British Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, who in 1997, thought that it was a form of washing powder. In this respect biodiversity has a similar problem to ecosystem services, which recent market research found was ranked 13th of 16 options among terms used to describe the benefits of nature.

Finally, the word biodiversity may not fit well with contemporary framings of conservation. As Mace describes in her 2014 article ‘Whose Conservation’, the 1980s, when biodiversity burst onto the scene, were the era of ‘nature despite people’ conservation, when scientific analysis of extinction threats and habitat loss dominated the conservation world. More recently conservation has turned towards anthropocentric rationales for conservation (what Mace calls ‘nature for people’ and ‘people and nature’). These place less emphasis on technical science and more on engagement with people, which makes biodiversity a less useful term for those trying to communicate conservation to non-specialist audiences. This change in approach perhaps explains the bifurcation between biodiversity’s continued rise in the scientific literature (specialist, scientific) compared to its fall in google searches (non-specialist, public).

If ‘biodiversity’ no longer works as the right term to describe what conservation (or at least, more anthropocentric forms of conservation) is trying to save, what might take its place? My prediction is that conservation is going back to nature. Mace’s 2012 article on biodiversity and ecosystem services (pitched to a specialist audience) mentions biodiversity 96 times and nature not once. However, her 2014 article on framings of conservation (pitched to a generalist audience) mentions biodiversity twice and nature 40 times. Kareiva and Marvier, the architects of the so-called ‘new conservation’ also favour nature in their writing, directly contrasting it with biodiversity: “Conservation as Soulé framed it was all about protecting biodiversity because species have inherent value… We argue that nature also merits conservation for very practical and more self-centered reasons concerning what nature and healthy ecosystems provide to humanity” (Kareiva & Marvier, 2012; emphasis added). More and more NGOs seem to be using ‘nature’ in their communications (RSPB – Giving Nature a Home; WWF – World Wide Fund for Nature; Conservation International – Nature is Speaking). And biodiversity is not alone in getting a nature makeover – efforts are being made to rebrand ecosystem services as ‘Nature’s Contributions to People’, for very similar reasons.

If conservation is indeed rehabilitating the word ‘nature’ after its time in the wilderness (sorry, I couldn’t resist) during the biodiversity years, this comes with a certain irony because it is happening at the very moment that some scholars are describing conservation as ‘post-natural’. These authors draw on ideas about the end of pristine nature in the Anthropocene to argue that there is no such thing as untouched nature any more, and that conservation must therefore change its approach – becoming more future oriented rather than trying to recreate an impossible past. These authors suggest yet more alternatives to ‘biodiversity’, including ‘wildlife’ (Lorimer) and ‘multispecies abundance’ (Collard et al).

There are many conservations, and they differ not only regarding what should be conserved, but how that ‘what’ should be named. Favoured terms come and go, and then, it seems, come round again. ‘Biodiversity’ has had a very good innings, but perhaps its gloss has now worn off. It is too deeply embedded in national and international policy to disappear completely, but I anticipate that its usage will continue to decline as rapidly as the diversity of life that it signifies.

This article is based on a presentation I gave at the Biodiversity and its Histories conference in Cambridge, UK in March 2017


6 thoughts on “The rise and fall of biodiversity

  1. Great post! I think the term ‘nature’ is more translatable across demographics & dialects and is much more inclusive than terms like biodiversity or wilderness…the concept of Nature (or the world outside) is instantly recognisable, wherever in the world you are.

  2. This is how I define nature in the glossary of my new book, as ‘extracted’ from Collins Canadian English Dictioary & Thesaurus:
    nature (CCEDT)…1 fundamental qualities; identity or essential character. 2 (often cap.) the whole system of the existence, forces and events of all physical life that are not controlled by man. [Author’s note: I will take “life” as permission to use capital ‘N’ Nature to mean only the totality of biological species not domesticated by man; ecosystem has an intermediate meaning.]

  3. This is fascinating Chris and must say I reckon you’re onto something. We (TNC, emphasis on NATURE thank you very much), have done extensive research into what words and concepts resonate – I don’t know if it’s the US mothership but I’ve not experienced that much ‘willingness’ to speak the same (right) language as who you’re trying to talk to before. It feels less arrogant. Having not read – but hanging to now – Takacs’ book it sounds like the elitism (however true) of the science vs the desperation for the funder has been summed up perfectly. There’s so much I’d love to talk to you about in here. Part of it feels like biodiversity fatigue, part like we’re all stinking hippies anyway, part like we’re ultimately powerless against decision makers so let’s side with the big boys, with a bit of no longer fashionable and yes, dare I say, ill-advised (or refusal to listen) Comms chucked in along the way. To communicate the crisis, you’ve gotta be smart, but not too smart. You’ve gotta have the science, but make it simple enough that people don’t feel stupid when they don’t understand but not so simple that ANYONE could understand.
    Maybe science has taken over now and is serving to alienate people from willing involvement. I’ve always said, the only people more difficult than scientists to work with in a comms sense is visual artists. Each end of the spectrum, fact vs emotion maybe. I shall stop now before I make any more enemies and get the sack to boot. Great blog though. Thoroughly enjoyed it.

  4. Thanks Chris

    Finding the right name for what needs to be conserved can be very challenging, so many of the words we used are based in historical relationships that humans have had with other species and landscapes – I work for Buglife – an imperfect name, but in 15 years no one has suggested a better one.

    Nature as a term has it’s problems, not simply its common use to partition people from other species, which can’t be the way forward, and its devaluing of ‘unnatural’ places (human centric and biodiversity blind), it is also very difficult to define as an end point – how would you measure a more natural world and would this necessarily be a more better place for all species?

    Wildlife has substantial problems as well, it is definitely used to refer collectively to non-human vertebrate species, but much less so other species. Check out how often people refer to ‘wildlife and plants’ – used repeatedly in the draft of the ill fated UK 25 year Environment Plan (what about fungi!). Also in my experience people do not often use wildlife to refer to snails, worms, mites, wasps or similar. Wildlife is an unlevel playing field with mobile creatures closely related to us perched at the top of the slope and smaller less fluffy organisms much lower down.

    Biodiversity is a more modern term and escapes the historical and religious connotations of nature and wildlife. But lack of awareness and empathy with the term is a serious problem, particularly as, after making good progress up to 2013, awareness levels have fallen of a clifflet between 2013 and 2015 .

    Despite the engagement difficulties, global political commitments centre on biodiversity, and there are sound metrics to help measure biodiversity conservation progress. When it comes to holding politicians to account, biodiversity remains a very useful word.

    It ends up being about audiences.

    Matt Shardlow

  5. Some interesting thoughts Chris! Thanks for this.

    I suspect the switch to “biodiversity” was also popular because, at the time, there was a need to separate from the hangover of 60’s “back to nature” counterculture, which very much emphasized an “us vs. them” attitude toward government and business. Not to say that wasn’t an important movement, but scientists trying to “save nature” back then, and into the 70’s and 80’s, would likely have been treated very differently as compared to today. I’m too young to make that claim with any certainty, but I do know that for many people, “tree huggers” are to this day treated like something found stuck to the bottom of your shoe. Overcoming this mentality is a real challenge, particularly in natural-resource based economies like my home province.

    I do agree with your conclusion though. Most people look at me like I’m speaking in tongues when I say I work in biodiversity conservation. Might we emphasize “life” to capture exactly what we’re collectively trying to conserve? The word is used consistently when defining biodiversity to a lay-audience anyway, such as “the diversity of life”, or “the variety of life”.

    Back home, and I suspect in a lot of other places as well, if I used “nature” as the opening explanation as to what I do for a living, my credibility would instantly be called into question by most people. And maybe this is as it should be? If nature has such a nebulous definition, than to say I work to conserve nature might suggest the work I undertake is equally nebulous, which doesn’t reflect reality.

    Anyway, great post and some excellent food for thought!

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