Key Issues and Critical Perspectives

Biodiversity touches nearly every aspect of human affairs in the twenty first century, including environmental sustainability, poverty and social justice, medicine and healthcare, agriculture and food, and economic globalization. As a consequence, a wide range of critical assessments of the concept has emerged, ranging from questions of who should own, control, and benefit from biodiversity to questions of how to inventory and catalog the world’s life forms. Among the myriad scientific, political, economic, and social questions raised by the invention of biodiversity, three areas of concern stand out: social justice and proprietary rights; uncertainties in the study of biodiversity; and the effectiveness of biodiversity protection efforts.

Social Justice and Proprietary Rights

The construction of the biodiversity crisis as a global commons problem suggests that the solution lies with restructuring property relations from the top-down. There hence has been a worldwide movement toward the enclosure and commodification of biodiversity, endorsed by and enforced through such international arrangements as the CBD and the GEF and state governments in concert with various mainstream international conservation NGOs. Such a tragedy of the commons understanding of biodiversity loss assumes that the world’s biodiversity exists ‘out there’ in nature without proprietary claims as an uncaptured natural resource. Many social justice issues arise from such a perspective. Critics, such as Vandana Shiva, argue that much of the world’s biodiversity and knowledge about it are, in fact, the products of the labor generations of agrarian communities. These critics argue that what passes for legitimate bioprospecting in the Global South is in reality biopiracy; that private interests (e.g., northern multinationals) take freely the biodiversity produced in the Global South and commodify it as intellectual property to be sold for a profit in the form of improved seeds, medicines, and other biotechnology products. Others point out that the local commons, which rural communities manage and depend upon for their livelihoods, are rescaled as global commons and enclosed for the benefit of an abstract ‘humankind’. The consequent displacements of communities in the interests of biodiversity conservation raise justice questions regarding who bears the costs of and benefits from enclosures.

Uncertainties in the Study of Biodiversity

Practitioners have labeled conservation biology a ‘crisis science’, meaning that in a context of great uncertainty, as with certain branches of medicine, the risks of inaction are greater than those of action. The question, what proportion of the world’s biodiversity can be lost before the planet’s human life support systems collapse, cannot be answered with certainty given the current state of scientific knowledge. Waiting for that question to be answered with scientific certainty is to risk, quite literally, the end of the world as we know it. Generally, it is this sort of unanswered empirical, scientific question that conservation biologists refer to when writing of uncertainty. But there are also more fundamental ontological and ideological sources of uncertainty in understanding biodiversity. These include questions regarding how species are inventoried and classified, how well scientific models reflect reality, and the anthropogenic sources of biodiversity.

At the center of the scientific response to the biodiversity crisis is an effort to inventory and classify as much of the world’s biodiversity as possible and then to set priorities for its conservation. Critical observers of this strategy suggest that this is not as straightforward and empirically objective as may appear. First, there is a great deal more attention to charismatic life forms (e.g., large mammals) that appeal to scientists for subjective reasons, thus creating a biodiversity inventory skewed toward a limited number of taxa. Second, the structures of classification systems themselves are subjective constructions that vary geographically and historically. Third, as biodiversity is incorporated into human affairs in the form of commodities, scientific inventories are increasingly shaped by the demands of political economy. The prevailing model of nature in the scientific study of biodiversity is that of a steady state system of long duration, which, when disturbed, returns to stasis through an orderly set of stages (see section titled ‘Effectiveness of biodiversity protection efforts’). Thus habitats of high biodiversity, such as moist tropical forests, are viewed as pristine remnant ecosystems threatened by anthropogenic disturbance. Increasing evidence from both the natural and social sciences suggests that many of the world’s most diverse habitats, such as the forests of the Southeast Asian archipelago, are not ancient and pristine, but relatively recent systems that have been subject to widespread and sometimes frequent cycles of disturbance, particularly from fire. Evidence for greater resiliency and less fragility in tropical ecosystems has also challenged the prevailing stasis model of nature. Moreover, presumed remnant, pristine habitats have been found to be stages in cycles of human food production systems and that disturbances caused by such systems can have the effect of increasing biodiversity. This latter finding raises questions about the role of humans in shaping the world’s biodiversity. Studies from virtually all regions of the globe suggest that humans have played an important role in shaping biodiversity at multiple scales, from habitat diversity to genetic diversity. Finally, some critical analysts, building on the work of Bruno Latour, argue that the scientific project to inventory and catalog species for conservation purposes will ultimately produce the world’s future biodiversity in its own image.

Effectiveness of Biodiversity Protection Efforts

In the face of evidence of increasing extinction rates, conservationists and scientists of the 1950s and 1960s laid the conceptual foundation upon which twenty first century global biodiversity protection efforts are built. Major international NGOs and global governance institutions organized to create a worldwide network of protected areas, such as national parks, that would serve as ‘nature islands’ where wild species would be given refuge from human exploitation. As the fields of conservation biology and biotechnology emerged, protected area establishment became the centerpiece of a global scheme of in situ genetic diversity conservation. The CBD and GEF have adopted this framework in directing international efforts to stem biodiversity loss, focusing funding on the expansion and management of a global network of protected areas. Scientific and political interest in protected areas has risen tremendously because they are now viewed as the primary containers of the world’s extant and future biodiversity. National governments have implemented the greatest expansion of protected areas in history, creating more parks and reserves between 1970 and 1990 than in all the previous decades. Most of the increase has occurred in the Global South where poverty levels are high and the majority of the populations are rural and directly dependent on the land for their livelihoods.

Critics of the nature island approach to global biodiversity conservation have questioned its effectiveness, observing that even as governments have exponentially increased the area of the Earth’s surface under formal protection, extinction rates and the number of threatened species have risen. The reasons are complex. Proponents of the approach argue that many protected areas in the Global South are not really protected, but rather exist only as ‘paper parks’ with insufficient funds for planning and management. Thus, the solution is to funnel more funds for protected areas to poor tropical countries through such instruments as the GEF. More critical observers suggest that the problem lies in the very conceptualization of biodiversity protection in conservation biology. They note that the historical and philosophical foundations of the prevailing protected area model equate biodiversity with wilderness and presume that the normal ecosystem dynamics tend toward steady state or stable equilibrium conditions. Equating biodiversity with wilderness discounts the positive role of human activities in biodiversity, requires the displacement of human populations from protected areas, and fails to address the fact that the vast majority of the world’s biodiversity exists outside of protected areas. The stable equilibrium concept of ecosystem dynamics has been increasingly challenged by theoretical advances and empirical findings in ecological science that suggest that instability, disequilibria, and chaotic fluctuations are far more common and perhaps ‘normal’ conditions. Therefore, attempting to stop ecological change by bounding populations within protected areas is proving to be an ineffective response to biodiversity loss. A more comprehensive response, one that challenges the prevailing political economic model of global capitalism, will likely be required to staunch the loss of biodiversity.