Opinion: Are the terms ‘Nature’ and ‘Biodiversity synonyms and is arguing about their usage simply a matter of semantics?

 

The Environment Bill, currently at the committee stage in the House of Lords, is intended to replace much of the EU environmental legislation following Brexit. It will allow the government to set out long-term targets for the UK’s natural environment, including on air quality, water, biodiversity and waste reduction. It will also set out policy for environmental improvement measures such as recycling and protecting ecosystems.

During the latest debate in the House of Lords (21st June 2021), Conservative former minister Lord Blencathra sought to amend the Bill (Amendment 5). According to him the term “nature” commands greater understanding than “biodiversity”, and people can more readily relate to it, observing the term “biodiversity” appeared more than 141 times in the legislation.

He was backed by backed by Conservative peer Lord Trenchard, who said: “Biodiversity is one of the worst examples of a pseudo-intellectual word which most people do not understand and would never use in speech. 1

Such attitudes are not simply ignorant and wrong but, were they to be accepted and incorporated into the legislation then they could pose real risks to biodiversity in the UK.

The term ’nature’ is imprecise and is open to wide interpretation. Nature, in the broadest sense, is equivalent to the natural world, physical world, or material world. "Nature" refers to the phenomena of the physical world, and also to life in general. It ranges in scale from the subatomic to the cosmic. 2

The term is so vague that it does not provide a sound basis for assessing the health of our environment. So fields full of wheat or oilseed rape could be said to belong to nature, fox-hunting could be described as ‘engaging with nature by following our ‘natural’ hunting instincts.

Conversely, the term ‘biodiversity’ is the term we use for the variety of all life on earth, from Actinobacteria to zebras. All living things exist within an interacting matrix of biological and physical features as we find in oceans, forests, deserts, ice caps and even cities. 3

Why biodiversity matters...

Everything that we do, from the water we drink, air we breathe and food we eat is all dependent on the natural world. The processes that keep our reservoirs clean and the food in the fields growing are all underpinned by the biodiversity that surrounds it, and without any of these, other species simply would not be able to survive.

It is not, however, the mere presence of these species that matters most but their relationships with each other and how they interact to create a complex network of life. As individual species are removed from this web, the woodland or meadow ecosystem in which they live eventually collapses. The most biodiverse ecosystems are the most stable and resilient to external pressures and provide us with the best opportunity of maintain all life on earth, including our own. Sadly the forces that they cannot resist are provided by man, over-fishing, deforestation, monoculture farming, over-use of pesticides pollution by gases and petrochemicals etc.

 

 

However, the concept of biodiversity avails us with a variety of measures for assessing the health of our environment. Biodiversity can be measured at many different levels including genetic, species, community, and ecosystem.

One way to measure biodiversity is to assess species richness of an ecosystem, which is the total number of distinct species within a community.

While having many species generally coincides with having a diverse and healthy ecosystem, the equality of the proportion of each species within an area or community needs to be considered. This is referred to as its ‘evenness’. For instance, when one species dominates an area while others are very rare, the biodiversity in this area is lower than in an area with species of equal abundance. Therefore, areas with many species that are relatively equal in abundance have the highest values of biodiversity. 4

The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) has identified the five direct drivers of biodiversity loss as changing use of sea and land, direct exploitation of organisms, climate change, pollution and invasive non-native species. Two indirect drivers are people’s disconnect with nature and lack of value and importance of nature. 5 6

Sadly, according to Josh Davis, writing on the Natural History Museum’s website, the UK has 'led the world' in destroying the natural environment. 7

However, there is still a fight to be won. During the House of Lords debate, some noble lords displayed more enlightened views.. Environment minister Zac Goldsmith suggesting people need to become better acquainted with the term “biodiversity”.

Lord Goldsmith said: “We want people to understand and engage in nature, but it is also important to increase recognition of and engagement with the term biodiversity … an internationally recognised term that is gaining popularity. It confers a direction of travel toward greater diversity … Nature is a more expansive term than biodiversity often taken to include non-living elements and is potentially more open to interpretation … It is perfectly possible to enhance nature with limited or no value to biodiversity.”

Lord Hope of Craighead, suggested that the word biodiversity, is preferable to use than word nature, because it is more precisely targeted on that aspect of our environment as it spans the entirety of the ecosystem on which the natural environment depends and the diversity which gives it its life.”  8 9

 

We must maintain constant vigilance to ensure policy on biodiversity is not compromised by ignorance or worse.

 

By Jim Pearson