The Turbulent Side of Biodiversity

It’s been a while since I visited the Freakonomics blog. A while back, however, I started reading last year’s Superfreakonomics, and paid the blog a visit. My attention was attracted to a post on biodiversity, perhaps since I’ve lately taken an interest in the economics of biodiversity. The post is written by James McWilliams and asks:

[…] But it’s worth asking: what are we really talking about when we talk about biodiversity? On the surface, the word signifies the entirety of biological life. […] But not unlike the terms “environmentalism” and “sustainability,” biodiversity has a turbulent side, one with hidden implications that complicate its value as a precise gauge for land conservation.

Entirety of biological life? Hm, not sure if I agree.

The heroic efforts of ecologists notwithstanding—biodiversity remains an impossible concept to quantify in absolute terms. […] But critical questions remain: Is this erosion anything new in absolute terms? Is the decline in diversity that we’ve diligently documented and rightfully scorned reflective of genetic erosion as a whole? From the perspective of global biodiversity, does [for example] a salamander really matter?

A wise man once pointed out to me that much of human development and economic growth has relied on replacing ecosystems with monocultures (think clearing a forest to sow grains); a development impossible without loss of biodiverstiy. Notwithstanding:

One school of ecological thought rests on the premise that “biodiversity often peaks” in ecosystems that have been moderately disturbed by human development.

A final concern:

A final concern deals with the fact that, as we expand the built environment, some species will suffer the consequences while others will thrive, or at least suffer less. All of which raises a thorny philosophical question: who are we to decide which species deserve to flourish or suffer more than other species? Given that any sort of development, however aggressive, has the potential to influence an innumerable range of species in innumerable ways, we’re stuck with the task of somehow assigning comparative worth to plants and animals that have far outdated our own existence on the planet […]

Preserving and fostering biodiversity is a profoundly important environmental challenge, one that will only intensify throughout the century. But because the concept is so difficult to pin down and quantify, preserving it may require doing so through less expansive standards. More general, and policy-applicable, standards such as density of production, extent of open space, public health concerns, and the integration of built and natural environment might serve environmental concerns more efficiently than a concept that, theoretically speaking, has as much sympathy for a landfill as it does a rain forest.


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