01 April 1993 - 03 April 1993

Sustaining Biodiversity: Importance, Implications and Costs

Chair: Sir Crispin Tickell GCMG KCVO

Biodiversity was a topic rather off the Foundation’s customary beat - we have not normally regarded the Ditchley pattern as well suited to tackling themes of highly-specialised content. But we realised, in the wake of the Rio Summit, that it was now firmly on the world’s political agenda.

We broadly accepted the word as meaning the abundance and variety of living organisms and the eco-systems within which they are active. This inheritance had never been a static one, and the loss of species had been constant and inevitable. The rate of loss, albeit hard to measure exactly, had however clearly accelerated dramatically in recent decades under the impact of a mix of forces - mostly derived from the pressures of economic and technological development, with human population growth often the key ultimate dynamic - such as atmospheric and marine pollution, overfishing, intensive agricultural methods, livestock expansion and global warming. Tropical deforestation - notably through the effects of slash-and-bum operations by which displaced peasants established new rights of tenure - was an especial concern, though some participants warned against over narrow concentration upon this. Even within national parks or other protected areas species were not safe; global warming, on some current projections, would significantly alter the pattern of vegetation in about half the existing total area of these within the coming half-century.

Did all this matter? and if so, just why? We all agreed, even if with different emphases, to say Yes to the first question; but the second was surprisingly difficult to answer, especially in ways that would dependably carry conviction in debates with those whose perceived economic interest disposed them to scepticism. There were specific fields where the fact of economic loss was readily demonstrable, and better economic evaluation might considerably widen the ambit of that proof; but we did not feel confident that economic self-interest, even on a properly long-term view, could ever carry the whole argument. Some of us - not all - placed much weight on a quasi-ethical argument, of nature’s value for its own sake. Some (again, not all) looked to a general “web-of-life” approach - the consideration that uncontrolled interference with the span of species, or of relative volumes as between them, risked disturbing wide and resilient-looking ecosystems in ways which might have damaging and irreversible cliff-edge effects not recognised until too late; our accountability to future generations would be at issue. We doubted, in the end, whether any single argument could carry the entire persuasive burden; but we did all accept the “precautionary” principle - the concept, as a guide to action, that where we could not confidently foresee consequences we should always reckon with the possibility of adverse ones.

The problem of diagnosis and prediction, and therefore of persuasion, was compounded by the grave inadequacies of existing data and analyses. Estimates of how many species there were, and of the rate of loss, were extrapolations from relatively narrow bases, and brackets of uncertainty were accordingly wide; as a result, it was often not difficult for critics to cast doubt on generalised claims, and to allege scare-mongering. Nevertheless, we agreed, the evidence in the round was amply solid enough to warrant campaigns of concern; and the need for action could not, in any prudence, wait further upon decades of scholarly exploration. Research should be driven forward, and on a wide front; but as a partner, not an alternative, to practical action.

On the information front, we saw a need for internationally-coordinated action to identify and classify; much of this, given good scientific leadership and organisation, could mobilise willing non-professional surveyors probably available on a large scale, especially among the young. A deeper and better-understood store of knowledge would play a necessary part not only in weighing the general concerns of biodiversity but also in the tough but unavoidable task of setting priorities. Limited resources compelled hard choices, and some concentration upon particular fields and problems was essential. Choices would be made more rational, and more convincing to publics, if economic evaluation could be more widespread and more thorough; in particular, further efforts were needed to achieve “full-cost accounting” - to identify and weigh long-term and cross-boundary implications. (We accepted, in this regard, that prioritisation might have to look for ranking not only within biodiversity effort but as between biodiversity and other environmental-related concerns, like global warming and indeed population growth.)

We agreed that there was no single model for protective action. Nature reserves had a valuable part to play, but could not offer a general solution - especially as they mostly could not address problems where (as often in the marine setting) loss of biomass rather than strict biodiversity was the prime threat; and it would moreover be a needless counsel of despair to suppose that effective conservation could be achieved only by the artificial exclusion of economic forces - the continuing general quality of highly-managed territories like that of Britain as a whole showed the contrary. We were however clear that, whatever the particular lines of action chosen, local participation was of cardinal importance. Species and habitat loss were generally at its most severe among the poorest countries; they must nevertheless be persuaded that their responsibilities could not be confined to action for which they received subsidy; and this made it essential to construct patterns of informed involvement and incentive, at both individual and group (not just Government) level, which broke away from the impression that biodiversity concern was an interfering self-indulgence pursued and imposed by rich countries. Given the long timespans of the environmental mechanisms, and their refusal to fit neatly within state boundaries, structures which brought costs and benefits healthily together were hard to frame and sometimes perhaps so impossible that regulatory imposition was unavoidable; but with a better base of economic understanding and organisation salutary improvements ought nevertheless to be widely achievable. More emphasis was still needed upon sustainable use rather than mere preservation, and upon the fact that in the long run eco-diversity and “natural” approaches were partners rather than rivals of sound agricultural economics.

Mixed views were expressed upon the extent of the achievement at Rio. The summit gathering had undoubtedly raised the profile of environmental issues, and of biodiversity among them, in a fresh and valuable way; but the outcome reflected the inescapable ambiguities of political compromise, and there remained a great deal to play for in the practical interpretation and working-out of the generalities accepted. The role of the Commission on Sustainable Development was potentially important and constructive; it could distil principles and disseminate lessons, and progressively stimulate countries - though the earlier responders would inevitably not be the less developed - to the formulation of effective strategies for action.

The key impulse for action, of whatever form, must ultimately be public understanding and consequent concern (with a special opportunity, and necessity, within our education systems). The stimulation of interest sometimes called for difficult judgment - there was a course to be steered between alarmist rhetoric and over-nuanced scientific avowal of uncertainty, and choices too about whether or not to accept the risks inherent in over-focusing upon dramatic symbols like the giant panda which might grasp a headline but thereafter trivialise debate at the expense of less glamorous areas - the vast importance of small plant life and of microorganisms in the soil, for example - that truly mattered far more. If sensible balance were to be struck there needed to be more sound understanding of science in the political and economic arena - perhaps to be partnered by more realistic understanding of politics and economics in the scientific arena? Either way, the role of the scientist, not just as researcher but as informant and educator, was crucial. Ditchley likes to end on an up-beat note; this time it was perhaps a recognition that public opinion was indeed steadily on the move, in the right direction - one sort of global warming that ought to benefit biodiversity.

This Note reflects the Director's personal impressions of the conference. No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.

Chairman: Sir Crispin Tickell GCMG KCVO
Warden, Green College, University of Oxford; President, Royal Geographical Society; Chairman, Advisory Committee on the Darwin Initiative on Biodiversity; Chairman, The Climate Institute, Washington DC


Dr Jeffrey Burley CBE
University of Oxford: Director, Oxford Forestry Institute, Department of Plant Sciences; Professorial Fellow of Green College, Oxford

Dr Neil Chalmers
Director, The Natural History Museum, London

Professor David Ingram
Regius Keeper (Director), Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh

Mr John Maddox
Writer and broadcaster; Editor, Nature

Mr Oliver Morton
Science Editor, The Economist

Dr Norman Myers
Consultant in Environment and Development, including to Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Government of the Federal Republic of Germany, NATO, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Defence Staff College and Secretary-General, 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development

Dr Robin Pellew
Director, World Conservation Monitoring Centre, Cambridge (joint venture between the World Conservation Union, United Nations Environment Programme and World-Wide Fund for Nature)

Dr Michael Rands
Programme Director, International Council for Bird Preservation, Cambridge

Dr Matthew Ridley
Freelance journalist and author, currently writing a book about evolution

Mr Gavin Watson
Under Secretary and Head, Directorate of Environmental Policy and Analysis, Department of the Environment

Ambassador Arthur C Campeau QC
Ambassador for Environment and Sustainable Development and Personal Representative (Sherpa) to Prime Minister to UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED)

Dr Don Eastman
Manager, Research and Development, Wildlife Branch, British Columbia Ministry of the Environment, Lands and Parks

Mr Jon K Grant
Chairman and CEO, The Quaker Oats Company of Canada Limited

Professor Euan Nisbet
Professor of Geology, Royal Holloway College, University of London

Professor Lucien Chabason
Professor of Environmental Science, Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris (known as Sciences-Po)

Ambassador Dr Wolfgang Hoffmann
Head of German Delegation, Conference on Disarmament, Geneva

Dr Tundi Agardy
Senior Conservation Scientist, World Wildlife Fund (WWF) (research on tropical marine ecosystem ecology and maintenance of marine biodiversity, and adviser on science-based conservation)

Mr Edward A Ames
Manager and a Trustee, Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust (which supports e.g. the Institute of Ecosystem Studies, New York, and protection of coastal wetlands in the south eastern United States)

Dr Gerard Bodeker
Director of Research, the Lancaster Foundation, directing research into the Ayur-Vedic health system

Dr Keith Bostian
Founder, Chief Operating Officer, Director, Microcide Pharmaceuticals, Inc
Dr Michael W Fox
Vice President, The Humane Society of the United States (The HSUS), Washington DC, head of section of Bioethics and Farm Animals

Professor Frances C James
Research Associate, Smithsonian Institution

Mr Bruce S Manheim Jr
Senior Attorney-Scientist and Director, Antarctic Project, Environmental Defense Fund, Washington DC

Dr George M Milne Jr
Pfizer Central Research Division: Senior Vice President

Mr William K Reilly
Senior Fellow, World Wildlife Fund, Washington DC.

Mr William Robertson IV
Science Foundation Administrator and Programme Director, Andrew W Mellon Foundation, New York City

Dr Carl Safina
Director, National Marine Conservation, “Living Oceans’’ Program

Dr John C Sawhill
President and CEO, The Nature Conservancy