While it shouldn’t be, it’s often hard for people to wrap their minds around the concept of biodiversity. Partly this is because the concept of biodiversity is a complex one, and partly it’s because so many agencies have vested interests in people seeing anything that conserves resources as a threat to their lifestyles. The first steps toward defining the concept of biodiversity were undertaken by E.O. Wilson in the mid-1980s. Since then, the concept has become so important that there are a number of world, national, and local initiatives targeted at reducing biodiversity loss by 2010.
The concept of biodiversity breaks down into three major factors, all which are interwoven:
First is the concept of genetic diversity. This refers to the variation of genes within a single species and can be further broken down into two components: genetic variations within distinct populations of the same species, and genetic variations within a population.
Next is the concept of species diversity. This take us up one rung as we consider the varieties of species within a region. There are two main measures to assess this: the first is species richness, or the number of species, both plant and animal, that inhabit an area; the second is the more precise taxonomic diversity, which takes into account the relationships between species in addition to their numbers.
The third factor, and the overarching one, is ecosystem diversity. Since the boundaries between various biological communities are highly fluid, this is the most difficult factor to measure accurately, yet it may very well be the most important, since this is where changes that affect all life occur. Climate change, often caused by things like global warming, are among the greatest threats to ecosystem diversity.
Biological diversity includes the variety of ecosystems, and their patterns. It also includes their linkages across regional landscapes. There is a hierarchy of the parts and processes of biological diversity that is, admittedly, artificial. This hierarchy also has a distinct human context (i.e., things are seen in the context of how useful they are to humans). Still, it provides a focus for the concept of biodiversity, which is so infinitely varied that any lens taken to it must be narrowly focused compared to the full spectrum of both the topic and human needs.
Understanding the concept of biodiversity should be a high priority for everyone, since we cannot preserve it if we don’t understand it, and not preserving it will ultimately affect the lives of all us. One of the best ways of understanding the very broad concept of biodiversity is reading the various definitions used by scientists, philosophers, environmentalists, and others.