Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Biodiversity And The Marsh Of Ideas

We are naturally attracted to areas where life is diverse.  We seem to have an instinctive need for variety in things, processes, and places that are stable and that support our sense of well being.  We may feel a sense of stewardship towards these wild areas and aspire to conserve them.  We can label this need (the intrinsic value of biodiversity) and we can assign and appreciate the value of ecological services for humans (anthropocentric value).  This labeling expresses the basic human need for nature.  The next time you contemplate the beauty of a natural area, consider how this appreciation is communicated to others through art, science, and culture.
Biodiversity is a scientific attempt to measure and predict arrangements of variation and stability and is used as a tool in management of natural systems.  Biodiversity can be measured in several ways which are interrelated. 1) Ecological processes can be measured (N-fixation, photosynthesis, respiration, and cleaning and conserving water).  2) Functional types of organisms can be counted, including types associated with processes, patterns of distribution (zonation, spatial and temporal gradients, symbiosis, and parasitism), or behavior (herbivores, omnivores, and carnivores). 3) Functionally equivalent species can be measured within functional types outlined in (2).  Diversity also occurs at different levels of spatial interaction.  Alpha diversity reflects number of processes or species within a habitat.  Beta diversity reflects between-habitat diversity.  Gamma diversity measures geographical diversity over large areas.  
The analysis can look at components and at the moral, philosophical, and political aspects of systems.  Because we do not have a specific understanding of what is diversity, each viewpoint may give a different picture of diversity and its values.  Intrinsic value may be difficult to define but easy to experience.  Anthropocentric monetary values may be assigned and include economic benefits, aesthetic and recreational benefits, scientific and ethical knowledge, and future potential benefits.
Processes regulating biodiversity include chance, history, laws of interactions (growth, competition, and cooperation), speciation, immigration, emigration, extinction, area, productivity, spatial heterogeneity, and disturbance.  Predictive models have been developed to simulate biodiversity on several spatial and temporal scales.  Studies of biodiversity have included surveys of diversity in processes, genetics, species, indicator groups, and surrogate environmental measures for processes.  Initial surveys are conducted and systems are then monitored for subsequent changes and comparisons with model predictions.
Assigning value to diversity and prioritizing conservation efforts will require careful thinking and consensus for the goals of societies and the future of wild places.  Perhaps the place to start from and return to is our instinctive appreciation of wild places, regardless of our political and philosophical persuasions.  
Posted by michael

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