Biodiversity, a contraction of biological diversity, is a recently invented term whose origins are readily traceable. The invention of the term ‘biodiversity’ coincides with the emergence, in the 1980s, of two new scientific fields, genetic engineering and conservation biology. Technological advances in genetic engineering resulted in the commodification of genetic material as a natural resource, the raw material for a new industry. Conservation biology emerged from an effort to structure conservation practices on the scientific foundation of evolutionary biology, with its emphasis on the relationships among genetic variation, genetic exchange, species population sizes, and species extinction rates. The term biodiversity originated from within the latter field in 1986. Walter Rosen, then senior program officer for the Board of Basic Biology at the National Science Research Council, is credited with coining the term in organizing the National Forum on Biodiversity. It is an all encompassing concept that refers to the diversity within the entirety of the world’s biosphere, as measured at various scales, including between individuals, populations, species, communities, and ecosystems. Biodiversity thus encompasses genetic, species, and habitat diversity.

The invention of biodiversity was an act of political advocacy as much as one of scientific reasoning. Scientists, principally biologists and natural resource specialists, sought to rally political support for what they perceived as a general and global scale crisis of mass extinctions and habitat loss. Biodiversity thus served as a scientific sounding catchphrase that conservation biologists could employ to educate politicians and the general public. E. O. Wilson cemented the term in both scientific discourse and public consciousness when, in 1988, he produced the edited volume, Biodiversity, from the proceedings of the National Forum. Biodiversity has since supplanted several terms once used by biological scientists and conservationists to describe the object of their labors, including game, flora and fauna, wildlife, nature, and wilderness.

Planners, scientists, policymakers, and development experts rapidly incorporated biodiversity into national development plans, research programs, global conservation agendas, and international treaties. Only a year after the publication of Wilson’s volume, the Costa Rican government established the National Biodiversity Institute to coordinate the conservation, harvesting, and marketing of biodiversity resources within its territory. In 1992, 150 countries signed the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), Article 2 of which defines biodiversity for the purposes of global governance. One of the Global Environmental Fund’s (GEF) – which the World Bank created in 1991 as a way to finance environmental initiatives in developing countries – first projects was the preparation of 24 biodiversity country studies. In 1988, biodiversity was not listed as a keyword in the ‘biological abstracts’. Currently, there are hundreds of entries annually, while the search of a typical research university’s holdings yields over 1000 entries containing biodiversity in the title.

The Biodiversity Crisis

The Geography of Biodiversity

Key Issues and Critical Perspectives