What is biodiversity?

View of Rio with the the Mata Atlantica

Biodiversity is the term for the variety of everything living on Earth. It includes the genetic variation between the individuals of every population of every species, from the smallest microscopic organisms to the biggest; the blue whale. It takes in the diversity within the habitats and ecosystems where communities of organisms co-exist. It covers life in deepest ocean trenches and highest mountains, and even in extreme environments deep in the earth and high in the atmosphere around the globe.

Biodiversity also includes people. In fact as organisms we have co-evolved and are dependent on a host of microorganisms which live within us – such as the microbial species in our digestive tracts which help us digest food and help protect us from harmful invaders. All the species which we have domesticated for our needs of food, fiber, fabric and construction have their origins in natural biodiversity. We still rely on natural variation, it is from it that we are able to breed new the new varieties needed to protect our crops and domesticated animals from emerging pests and diseases. Around the world vast tracts of semi-natural bio-diverse places provide must of of timber and natural fuels we use while much of the world’s population still rely on biodiversity as the sources of natural medicines and remedies for human health.

Humans have a history of subduing nature to our needs and will. This has been so since our hunter-gathering beginnings, through the emergence of agriculture and the growth of civilization. It has rapidly accelerated over the past century as industrial capability and ever-greater technological solutions have been bent to extract the planet’s resources and to generate economic growth. However, both science and history both forward us of the limits of our planetary ecosystems and the risk now presented by the combination of the unprecedented growth of human populations and our insatiable demand for resources. The scale of impact is such that scientists have given the geological time in which we live a new name – the Anthropicine – the geological time where the processes taking place at the Earth’s surface are significantly disturbed by the scale of human activity. It is a time charactorised by an unprecedented rate of extinction, orders of magnitude greater than the natural rate.

It has become clear that it is the rich variety of life which is essential for sustaining natural living systems. Furthermore it is clear that these systems provide ecological services which we cannot survive without. They provide the oxygen to breath, they clean and circulate our air and water, recycle waste and make nutrients available for growth, they moderate our climate and weather, and they help to mitigate against flood, drought and other catastrophic events.

From the UN down to grass roots communities it is recognised that in undermining the bio-diverse ecosystems of our planet we are also undermining our own wealth, health and well-being. There is now a huge call for new ways of re-imagining our relationship with the natural world. This can only be so if we understand that we have co-evolving with it and that now, given the scale of impact, we have to mature in the knowledge that we must be custodians of it. We need to redouble our efforts to protect biodiversity, but in doing so, and working with it intelligently we also have the potential to be hugely compensated by the lessons we can learn by emulating the evolved solutions in nature. It is only through reforging our relationship with nature that we can aim for the sea change in responses which will ensure the continued stocks of natural resources upon which we will rely for future sustainable living. It is only through rebuilding and working creatively to regenerate natural capital that will will build the environmental resilience which will allow to to cope with challenges of environmental change in the decades to come.