Biodiversity Day


Dryas octopetala

some biodiversity

Apparently it’s biodiversity day.

Or, to be more technically correct, it’s International Day for Biological Diversity.

The United Nations proclaimed this day as biodiversity day in 1993, shortly after the Rio Summit of 1992. The aim was to “increase understanding and awareness of biodiversity issues”.

It’s fair to say that the rest of biodiversity has not been treated well by that other singular species, us, Homo Sapiens, in the intervening 23 years.

Perhaps that’s part of the problem.

We don’t see ourselves as part of biodiversity, though we obviously are. Indeed though we may think of ourselves as individuals, members of families, communities, societies even citizens of states, we don’t think too much about ourselves as animals.

Or even symbionts.

While earlier estimates that bacteria outnumber human cells by 10 to 1 are now regarded with some scepticism, recent estimates still reckon we are as much made up of bacteria, viruses and fungi as we are of human cells. We are, each one of us, a mini ecosystem.

If the aim is to increase understanding and awareness, is biodiversity even the right word to use? I don’t think so. It’s a technical word with a specific meaning, and that meaning is known to a small coterie of activists, scientists and interested people. It’s a useful word for technical scientific use, but useless or worse actively unhelpful for communicating to a wide audience about nature.

Using the word Biodiversity creates a frame, a way of thinking about nature, which influences our attitudes and actions. While the original concept was noble, the consequence is that the word has become associated with a particular view of nature, leading to ecosystem services, natural capital and biodiversity offsetting. This was the subject of a talk I gave last year to the Chartered Institute of Ecologists and Environmental  Managers and I wrote up part of it here. I think it’s fair to say the audience was split, with some wondering what on earth I was talking about. You can see the slides here.

Having been a fully paid up, card carrying member of the biodiversity vanguard, I now prefer to use the word nature. Nature might mean different things to different people, but there is a core of understanding that most people will agree on. And the word nature, unlike biodiversity, creates an emotional response, an emotional connection, from humanity to the rest of non-human life.

So, forgive me, but I won’t be celebrating biodiversity day.

Does that mean I don’t care about nature? I’ll leave that for you to come to your own conclusions.


About Miles King

UK conservation professional, writing about nature, politics, life. All views are my own and not my employers. I don't write on behalf of anybody else.
This entry was posted in biodiversity, framing, language, Nature and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Biodiversity Day

  1. sasharem says:

    I like the tight neat argument here. Yes, ‘biodiversity’ is one of those bloodless, technocratic words which abstracts us from the pulse of life. Ok, ‘nature’ is a bit vague and highly contested (almost as many definitions as culture) but I agree we say with feeling…

  2. Mark Robins says:

    Miles, you are right but wrong too! The endless fractions that our movement splits into is a huge barrier to making progress. I’m celebrating every opportunity there is to find hope. Some things will work, some won’t. Be positive! Mark

  3. David Dunlop says:

    I prefer Nature too; but this is surely an Anglophonic conversation? What’s “Biodiversity Day” called in all the other languages of the United Nations?

    “Wildlife”, I gather, doesn’t translate well out of English, hence the World Wildlife Fund renaming itself the Worldwide Fund for Nature; and, more locally, Ymddorordolsethau Cymru Natur being the Welsh language version of Wildlife Trust Wales.

  4. Vulgaris@67 says:

    I to prefer nature and prefer to be called or least in terms of a hobby a natural historian. Professionally, I quite like the term Ecologist as that conveys professionalism which I think can be valuable in certain scenarios and certainly natural historian wouldn’t cut it. So, now we have actually lost biodiversity (sic) action plans and we are left with Section 41 species. Hmm…I think biodiversity sounds better?

  5. wendybirks says:

    I like the words “biodiversity” and “wildlife” myself, because “nature” isn’t specific enough. My very nearly 10 year old grandson was learning about homonyms for his homework, so I don’t think “biodiversity is too technical a word for school kids to use. And, it’s getting kids to value the natural world that matters if it is going to be looked after in the future. (See what I mean btw? In that last sentence “natural world” could mean different things, depending on your point of view. However, sometimes the biodiversity word sounds daft, for example using “Biodiverse World” for the “Natural World” programme on Radio 4 , wouldn’t sound right!)

    • Miles King says:

      thanks Wendy. I like nature because it isn’t so tightly defined, but also nature has a central role in our culture. Perhaps it’s just that biodiversity hasn’t had enough time to develop the many complex meanings that nature has developed.

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