Freshers Week rolls in and the inevitable barrage of questions – the most common of which is, “What are you studying?”
At first I dutifully replied, “Masters in Biodiversity, Conservation and Management”, however after having said that a dozen times I just shortened it to “conservation”: with intriguing results.
It was often (and I mean you wouldn’t believe how often!) followed by a pause and then; “of furniture?”, “of paintings?”, “of antiques?”
To which I would reply (at least in my head), “Of course! I have traveled halfway across the world to the University of Oxford to follow my true passion of restoring pre-loved tables and chairs.
After a while, I changed my tactic. Instead I replied, “Biodiversity conservation.” This worked well until I had some other people ask me; “Does that mean the environment?”
This has really gotten me thinking.
In my mind, the word ‘conservation’ has always been synonymous with the environment. How is it that the general public thinks of antiques before nature? Furthermore, why do so few people know what biodiversity means?
In the spirit of science I decided to undertake a small experiment. I wanted to see if these strange answers were just from the small number of people I encountered or whether it’s indicative of a wider knowledge gap.
Over the past month I have been asking people (from cashiers and librarians to new acquaintances) firstly, “When you hear the word, ‘conservation’, what is the first thing that comes to mind?” and secondly, “What does the word ‘biodiversity mean?”.
Altogether I spoke to 31 people. Not a huge number, I know, but a small sample of the people I have interacted with on a day to day basis in and around Oxford.
And here are the results:
While these results cannot be taken at face value they provide some interesting insights.
First of all, over a quarter of people don’t even think of the environment when they hear the word ‘conservation’! Second of all, some people didn’t even know what the word meant to begin with!
Most people though, just said ‘the environment’, while others mentioned a particular place like the Amazon, a single species like lions or an organisation like ‘The Countryside Alliance’. I also got some more disheartening results (such as hippies) and my ultimate favourite: “Ace Ventura Pet Detective”. Reeheehee-ally?
In terms of biodiversity, I literally had one person give me a correct definition. However, everyone else got pretty close but mostly missed the mark – bandying around words that had something to do with species, animals and plants but didn’t actually say ‘the variety of all life on Earth’ and who blames them?
Not only is it vague and ubiquitous but biodiversity’s definition and means of measuring it are contested. The term biodiversity lacks consistent meaning and is used in different ways by different people such that Knopf (1992) even asserted that “the definitions of biodiversity are as diverse as the biological resource”. Definitions can range from “the number of different species occurring in some location …” (Schwarz et al, 1976: 34) to “… all of the diversity and variability in nature” (Spellerberg and Hardes, 1992: 1).
So what does this all mean?
As scientists I think it is very easy to forget about what the wider public believes, or at the very least think that because we are so interested and knowledgeable about a subject that everyone else is too.
It is exercises like this which bring us back down to level ground.
I think the problem is not that biodiversity doesn’t have a set definition or that people don’t think of the environment when they hear ‘conservation’, but that it creates a technical jargon that distances us from the wonder of the world that we are trying to protect. To draw on Ralph Underhill’s ideas relating to framing and values. When I hear the word ‘wildlife’ there are epic visions that come to mind that could rival anything in ‘Planet Earth II” yet when I hear the word ‘biodiversity’, I usually think of an evolutionary tree diagram. Not quite as inspiring…
The emergence of the word ‘biodiversity’ in conservation has no doubt been useful as it has been able to capture more than just ‘the environment’ or species. It has allowed conservationists and policy makers to think beyond the obvious and encapsulate more. It allows for option values, ecosystem services, both ‘saving the tiger’ and its landscape to be embodied in one catch-all term.
But is this jargon distancing our projects from the general public? We need to wrest control away from the antiques and make nature the first thing that comes to mind again!
So, next time someone asks me what I am studying. I will say that I am doing my masters in wildlife conservation. We need more ‘Planet Earth’ and less genetic tree diagrams.
Knopf, F. 1992. Focusing Conservation of a diverse wildlife resource. Transactions of the North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conference. 57: 241-242
Schwarz, C., Thor, E. & Elsner, H. 1976. Wildland Planning Glossary. United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service General Technical Report PSW-13. California.
Spellerber, I. 1992. Evaluation and assessment for conservation: ecological guidelines for determining priorities for nature conservation. Chapman and Hall: London.