People Love Biodiversity, Whether they Know it or Not
When people ask me what I went to school for, I tend to respond with “biology” as a general answer. Sometimes I say “conservation biology.” A lot of people translate that into “environmental science,” and I concede that that is usually close enough. My most specific answer, which is “I have a master’s degree in Biodiversity, Conservation, and Policy,” is the one that I use the least often, reserved only for people that I am pretty sure will know what I am talking about. It’s a small audience, and that’s ok; there are plenty of people that tell me what they do for a living, and I know it’s been reduced to their equivalent of simply “biology.” “Finance,” for example, or “computer science.” They assume that if I actually care what they do for a living and am not just being polite, I will inquire further. I assume the same about them.
Whether or not people know that the word biodiversity refers to all levels of diversity of life, they love what it stands for. I say this with confidence—people love biodiversity. It’s not just for tree huggers, democrats, and hippies. I could compile a list of why we should conserve biodiversity, starting with “we depend on it” for food, a stable environment, a source of pharmaceuticals, and ending with the more idealistic concepts of the inherent value of all living things and their preciousness.
It’s that last concept that I believe most people hold, even if they would not say so. For example, the people that visit aquariums, zoos, and natural history museums can serve as a decent representation of the “general public.” And most of them experience a sense of awe when faced with nature, even if they see it through glass, and even if they find bugs creepy and sharks scary and generally stay out of wild places. I know this because I have spent so much time watching people at these places; they are fascinated. You cannot look at a full-sized replica of a blue whale and not be impressed by its vast size. There is something in this world to make you feel small, and you are glad that it exists.
Researchers have tried to quantify this “existence value” for different species. One study found that the average U.S. household is, at least hypothetically, willing to pay about $10 to $28 annually for a species’ conservation (Nunes and van den Berg, 2001). We like to know that tigers and lions and bears are out there, even if we will never see one or hope to never run into one in the wild.
As a biodiversity professional, I own a lot of nature documentaries, and I love them. But it has surprised me how much other people love them, too. My husband works at a boarding school, and so a fair number of teenagers have perused our movie collection. I cannot believe how many of them have asked to borrow Blue Planet, taking time off from their video games to watch animals go about their lives.
I visited friends in New York City last weekend, and they hosted a dinner party for a small group of people, none of whom I would expect to be labeled as a tree-hugger. Indeed, one of them accuses me of being a tree-hugging hippy on a regular basis (and yet it was his copy of Earth we were watching). Nevertheless, we watched three episodes in a row. That’s right, a bunch of twenty-somethings sitting around a Manhattan apartment, drinking vino verde and enjoying a nature documentary on a Saturday night. People love biodiversity.
It is difficult to maintain optimism in the environmental field. The more you know about climate change, the easier it is to feel that we are doomed. The worse the economy gets, the easier it is to believe that people just don’t care about saving the planet when they have other things to worry about. I am ready to sell people on environmental and energy conservation for whatever reason they will find compelling, even if it makes me a little sad that first you must say, “this will save you money,” and then you can add, “and help the environment” for a feel-good bonus. But it helps to remind myself that people love biodiversity, whether they know it or not.
Nunes, P. & J.C.J.M. van den Bergh. 2001. Economic valuation of biodiversity: sense or nonsense? Ecological Economics 39: 203-222.
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