A confluence of values

Historical roots of concern for biological diversity

Authored by: Timothy Farnham

The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Biodiversity

Print publication date:  September  2016
Online publication date:  October  2016

Print ISBN: 9781138827738
eBook ISBN: 9781315530215
Adobe ISBN: 9781315530208


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Biological diversity was originally crafted as an all-encompassing concept for conservation that could unite many different interests under one umbrella goal: the protection of life on Earth. The term itself, in its modern usage, has been around for less than fifty years. While several prominent individuals and groups in the American environmental movement used “biological diversity” sporadically in the literature in the late 1960s and through the 1970s, the first published definition did not appear until 1980, in the second chapter of the Annual Report of the Council for Environmental Quality (CEQ), a White House advisory body that helps to coordinate US federal environmental policy (Farnham 2007). The chapter was entitled “Ecology and Living Resources: Biological Diversity” and it was written by Elliott Norse and Roger McManus. At the time the CEQ staff was planning the report, the destruction of tropical forests and the subsequent threat to endangered species were drawing a great deal of public attention. Norse and McManus were asked by senior staff members to research and write “on an unprecedented subject: the status of life on Earth” (Norse 1996: 6). Norse, however, also felt that such a broad topic deserved a larger scope than simply focusing on species extinctions. Indeed, there was a strong concern in certain conservation circles over the loss of genetic diversity – often referred to as “germplasm resources” – and at the other end of the spectrum were groups who primarily focused on protecting the natural world at the ecosystem level. As Norse describes in an interview, “we were talking about the loss of diversity at all stages” (Norse 1999). Certainly, the plight of endangered species was popular, but the protection of genes and ecosystems was deeply interconnected to the successful conservation of the variety of plants and animals. Combining these different levels – genes, species, and ecosystems – would become the practice for those who sought to draw attention to the threats to life on Earth. As Norse wrote, “Knowing no existing term that encompassed all that was being lost, we called it ‘biological diversity’” (Norse 1996: 6).

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