Chapter 1. What is biodiversity, and why is it important?

This chapter discusses the value of biodiversity to human societies. It shows how responding to the values people place on the natural diversity of Australia can improve the way we manage Australia’s biodiversity.

What is biodiversity and why is it important?: Watch an interview with author Dr Steve Morton (07:51)

Show transcript

[Music plays and text appears: What is biodiversity and why is it important?]

[Image changes to view from a plane flying above the ground]

[Image changes to a bird flying and landing in a treetop]

[Image changes to fish swimming in the ocean]

[Image changes to a lizard in the forefront, and a view of a city comes into focus in the background]

[Image changes to a picture of the ocean and rocks]

[Image changes to the sun shining through treetops]

Biodiversity is the web of life.

[Image changes to a picture of a platypus]

[Image changes to show Dr. Steve Morton - Ecologist]

Biodiversity is the full variety of all the species that you see in the natural environment around you, like these witchetty bushes and Eremophilas.

[Image changes to picture of landscape]

All those species across the face of the earth make up biodiversity.

[Image changes to ants crawling along the ground]

[Image changes to a kangaroo]

[Text appears: Genetic variability]

And it’s not just species; it’s also the genetic variability they have within them.

[Images changes to a pelican sitting on a pole in the water]

[Image changes to the rainforest and text appears: Diversity of ecosystems]

[Image has changed back to Dr. Steve Morton]

And it’s not just the genetic variability and the... all the species diversity, it’s the diversity of ecosystems that they make up, and which you see behind me in this part of central Australia. Biodiversity is all those things.

[Text appears: Evolutionary history]

It’s the evolutionary history which has given rise to that genetic variability in all these species.

[Image changes to Dr. Morton standing at the top of a hill and looking out]

[Text appears: Ecosystem function]

It’s the functions that all those ecosystems produce in providing clean water, and in cycling nutrients.

[Image changes to Dr. Morton walking down the hill]

Biodiversity is all those things, and the processes that result from the living world. Biodiversity is the web of life.

[Image has changed back to Dr. Steve Morton]

The concept of biodiversity first emerged during the 1980s, actually quite recently, because of concern about the impact of human beings on the planet.

[Image changes to cars driving on a highway]

[Image changes to an open cut mine]

[Image changes to boats on the ocean]

Given that human beings are so abundant and so influential in what we do, we are clearly having an impact globally.

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[Image has changed back to Dr. Steve Morton]

So biodiversity as a concept emerged as a way of highlighting the precious nature of that living world and highlighting the need for human beings to think more carefully about the values and benefits that they obtain from the living world, from biodiversity.

[Text appears: Values: why does biodiversity matter?]

[Image has changed back to Dr. Steve Morton]

The diversity of life, and the diversity of human appreciation of it, is such that I think there’s at least five categories of values that we need to consider in asking ourselves the question, or rather answering the question why is biodiversity important, and why does it matter. And the first of those is obvious, it’s economic.

[Text appears: 1. Economic value]

In some places we human beings turn biodiversity into dollars.

[Image changes to a forest]

We harvest timber; we catch fish from the sea.

[Image changes to a fish]

[Image changes to farm land and sheep grazing]

Those direct uses of biodiversity provide economic wellbeing to many human communities.

[Image has changed back to Dr. Steve Morton]

The second major value of biodiversity is what you might call ecological life support.

[Text appears: 1. Economic value; 2. Ecological life support]

Another way of phrasing it is ecosystem services.

[Image changes to view from a plane flying above the ground]

These are benefits that human beings obtain from the natural world, such as the provision of clean water, the pollination of crops, the control of pests and weeds by other species.

[Image changes to farm crops]

[Image has changed back to Dr. Steve Morton]

The third one is in essence it’s cultural.

[Text appears: 1. Economic value; 2. Ecological life support; 3. Cultural value]

That the world around us informs the way we feel about our country.

[Image changes to the outback landscape]

Our great artists frequently represent the natural world in their artworks, and they hang in all the galleries throughout Australia.

[Image changes to various artworks]

Including, I might point out, Indigenous painters, whose depiction of country is often deeply rooted in what we might call biodiversity.

[Image changes to the sun shining through treetops]

All Australians recognise, all those of us who’ve had the benefit of flying overseas and coming home, know about the impact of the smell of gum leaves when finally you get home again.

[Image changes to a group of people walking through the bush]

[Image changes to camera panning through the bush]

You know in some senses the landscape around us tells us who we are.

[Image changes to an emu walking through an open field of long grass]

[Image changes to a kangaroo]

I mean we have an emu and a kangaroo on our coat of arms. And those values a very difficult to put any numbers on.

[Image of a bird in a tree]

But it doesn’t mean they’re insignificant. They’re incredibly important.

[Image has changed back to Dr. Steve Morton]

So that’s a third value. There’s a fourth one, and this one you might be able to put numbers on because it’s recreational value.

[Text appears: 1. Economic value; 2. Ecological life support; 3. Cultural value; 4. Recreational value]

People love getting out in the bush and rejuvenating.

[Image changes to people bird watching]

It doesn’t matter whether it’s a tough bush walk in Tasmania, or you know just an easy bout of bird watching in the paddock down by the dam, or just jogging by a lake in Canberra, or Sydney, or Melbourne.

[Image changes to cyclists and joggers]

[Image has changed back to Dr. Steve Morton]

The fifth one, I have left it til last because it’s the scientific value.

[Text appears: 1. Economic value; 2. Ecological life support; 3. Cultural value; 4. Recreational value; 5. Scientific value]

And that might sound a little bit precious to be claiming that, but it’s true.

[Image changes to people recording measurements of a tree and text appears: Systematic pursuit of knowledge about nature]

[Image has changed back to Dr. Steve Morton]

Australian biodiversity on the global scale is unique. There’s nothing else like Australia. It must be said that there is a sixth value which you might describe as the negative value, the unpleasant aspects of biodiversity in its relation to human beings.

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[Text appears: 1. Economic value; 2. Ecological life support; 3. Cultural value; 4. Recreational value; 5. Scientific value; 6. Negative value]

You don’t find many people arguing for the right to exist of the malarial parasite, or the smallpox virus.

[Image changes to a mosquito and the smallpox virus]

In Australia many people are frightened of crocodiles, for good reason.

[Image of a crocodile]

[Image has changed back to Dr. Steve Morton]

So there is a part of the natural world that we fear, and that’s always present in all societies.

[Music plays and text appears: Biodiversity is declining]

[Image of a city at night time]

With seven billion people on the face of the planet the natural world is experiencing a decline.

[Images of people flashing past]

Biodiversity is declining, it’s demonstrably occurring.

[Image changes to a computerised image of the world and text appears: from ‘Welcome to the Anthropocene’]

The nature of this impact, this universal impact that human beings are now having on planet earth has led to the development of a term which is the Anthropocene. Now the Anthropocene builds upon the geological eras, like the Pliocene and Miocene, and Pleistocene, so it’s a deliberate play on the evolution of the earth over its history, to a point now where it is dominated by human activity. That is unique.

[Image has changed back to Dr. Steve Morton]

So it’s a different geological era. We humans, our decisions now govern the future of the earth. It’s up to us.

[Text appears: What is the role of science?]

[Image has changed back to Dr. Steve Morton]

So I think there are three challenges.

[Image changes to two men talking and looking at a lizard]

[Text appears: 1. Address biodiversity decline]

First of all to understand, analyse, and help deal with the ongoing decline in biodiversity.

[Image changes to various animals]

That’s a big challenge for science.

[Text appears: 2. Understand complexity of biodiversity]

[Image changes to people recording measurements in the bush]

Secondly, understanding the full complexity of biodiversity. All those values and interactions that I spoke about before have a scientific component to them, and science is wrestling with the size of that task.

[Image of remote control device taking off and flying through the air]

[Image changes to open cut mine and text appears: 3. Inform resource use discussions]

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And thirdly science is still working out how best to contribute to the discussions about tradeoffs between different forms of resource use with biodiversity implications, because it’s those resource use activities that are causing the decline in the first place.

[Image changes to heavy machinery]

[Image changes to a large factory]

[Image has changed back to Dr. Steve Morton]

You could take the conversation we’re having to be pessimistic, that you know biodiversity is declining, you know human beings are getting more and more abundant, you know it’s all going to wrack and ruin – I actually don’t think that way.

[Image changes to view from a plane flying above the ground]

Particularly in Australia we have so much to be proud of, so many aspects of our society are ready to deal with these problems.

[Image changes to group of people sitting on the ground, talking]

[Text appears: Social dialogue]

We have tremendous experience in our society at the sort of social dialogue, the political debate necessary to make sure these things are taken account of.

[Image changes to a scientific machine rolling along the ground]

[Image changes to a man looking through a microscope and text appears: Science base]

We have a fantastic scientific base.

[Image has changed back to Dr. Steve Morton]

We have community involvement in natural resource management, including biodiversity management, to an unparalleled level.

[Image changes to groups of people taking photographs in the bush and text appears: Community involvement]

[Image has changed back to Dr. Steve Morton]

Couldn’t have been expected when I was a boy. There are many, many things to be positive about. Good reasons for optimism.

[Text appears: MUSIC – Premium Beat music tracks; ADDITIONAL FOOTAGE – Welcome to the Antrhropocene footage courtesy Anthropocene.info | Globaia.org, Shutterstock.com, Bruce Webber; ADDITIONAL IMAGES – Geoscience Australia, NASA, Woodside, Marie Davies, Sam Secker, Liz Poon, Malcolm Paterson, Creative Commons images (Flickr, Wikimedia): Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, Department of Environment & Primary Industries (Vic), geomartin, Bernard DUPONT, dilettantiquity, sunphlo; ARTWORK – Hans Heysen, National Gallery of NSW, Amy French and Lily Long, Martu Mili Artists]

[Music plays and CSIRO logo appears with text: Big ideas start here www.csiro.au]

Hide transcript

Biodiversity is the term used to describe the variety of all living things. Biodiversity includes genetic diversity, species diversity, ecosystem diversity and their associated evolutionary and ecological processes.

Chapter overview

Biodiversity makes human life on Earth possible.  Defining why it matters is a way of highlighting the benefits of the natural world. The importance of biodiversity reflects the many different values that we bestow up it, including economic, ecological, cultural, scientific and recreational.

While scientists are striving to describe and measure the full variety of life on Earth - an estimated nine million species - biodiversity is at risk due to the pressures of human resource-use. There is undeniable evidence of significant declines in biodiversity, both in Australia and globally.

This chapter discusses the value of biodiversity to human societies. It shows how responding to the values people place on the natural diversity of Australia can improve the way we manage Australia’s biodiversity.

Download the chapter or the whole book (PDF and EPUB versions available)

Chapter authors

Steve Morton and Rosemary Hill

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