Can We Grow Closer to Life by Measuring Biodiversity?

I think we can.

Nestled in the verdant highlands of Veracruz, Mexico, is a small village called La Chinantla. It is only reachable on foot. My comrades on this grueling eight-hour ascent are researchers from the UMA University who are traveling to document and learn from the villagers’ ancestral techniques of landscape management. Our first lesson of the day begins just a few hours in, when our guide pauses at a stone outcrop draped in emerald-green lichens. A waterfall exuberantly tumbles from above. “This is our jaguar totem,” he explains. “We must ask for its permission to enter the land.” One by one, we each place our hands on its snout and politely enquire if we may continue on our path.

Why on an academic expedition did we speak to a mossy stone shaped like a jaguar? I was to learn that for the people of La Chinantla, the jaguar represents their intimate knowledge of the jungle, a relationship woven from living in the same place for over two thousand years and tending to food-forests and local ecologies with keen observation.

When the jungle ecology destabilises through illegal poaching, urbanisation, rampant deforestation, or clearings burned for cattle ranching, the jaguar is forced move elsewhere. The community uses the presence of the jaguar as a proxy indicator for the landscape’s resilience, a sign that multiple constituents of biodiversity are expressed in their full potential. They embed the jaguar with reverence into their cultural narrative to ensure that this wisdom is passed down through generations.

Whether in a rambunctious Mexican forest or in a sanitised laboratory, the act of measuring biodiversity is the process of one species taking inventory of many others. In asking the question “what’s here?”, an observer and scientist of life must learn to integrate a challenging variety of perspectives, transcending false dichotomies of macro and micro, objective and subjective, human and nature.

I will make the case below that our scientific understanding of biodiversity can only be enhanced and improved by sensitive observations of social histories and local relations. These in turn will be strengthened by our increasingly sophisticated scientific tools and methods. The ability to combine these various frames of knowing is what I call ‘the biodiversity mindset’.

Defining and measuring biodiversity

There is no consensus on the measurement of biodiversity, but we do have something that’s coming close to an agreed-upon definition. The Convention on Biological Diversity refers to “the variability among living organisms from all sources including, inter alia, terrestrial, marine and other aquatic ecosystems and the ecological complexes of which they are part; this includes diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems”.

I understand biodiversity as the ‘aliveness’ of a place — in the relationships there are to be found both above and below ground. Biodiveristy is the creative force with which nature expresses itself. The voices of many species and natural processes intermingle in a polyphonic harmony, a song of many voices, contributing to a chorus greater than what any of them could have achieved on their own.

The failure to include and account for other forms of life in our models of the world has resulted in many aspects of the current climate and extinction crisis. Because the earth’s biosphere underpins the entire human economy, excluding it from our models and risk assessments has been a gross and perilous omission. Businesses, governments and asset managers are now doing their best to amend for this and are ramping up efforts to protect and restore biodiversity. Many are looking under the hood of monocultural systems, asking, ‘what’s here?’, only to be greeted by the ominous silence of a deadening planet.

So how does one begin to measure actual or missing biodiversity? You can use proxy indicators like the presence of a keystone species, as in the example of the jaguar above. You can incorporate methodologies such as threatened species count, the amount of diversity found in any given area (genetic, phylogenic, taxonomic), the Risk of Extinction Unit, an ecosystem’s structure and intactness, and mean species abundance. All of these approaches require some combination of expensive genetic sequencing, satellite imagery, spectroscopy, and the presence of trained ecologists. They are also all mostly quantitative. Rarely do they account for the messiness of local relations and human presence.

Accounting for human presence

Let’s return to the jaguar. Noting the presence of a jaguar is a quantitative act. You count as many you can see. However, for those who live in La Chinantla, the act of noticing a jaguar has a qualitative effect. Seeing or not seeing this regal feline initiates a social response that leads to them adapting their practical management of the jungle.

International conservation and emissions schemes like REDD+ have mostly failed to recognise and include human realities and place-based knowledge systems. Native inhabitants have been forced from lands in an ill-conceived effort to transform forests into ‘pristine’ reserves. Sociocultural wisdom was lost in the pursuit of ill-conceived ecological preservation, in essence splitting what is deemed human and what is deemed nature, and committing cultural genocide in the process.

This is madness. Biodiversity taxonomies need to account for human presence. Biodiversity has its own social and political historicity, one of intra-relating between our species and other species. If these relationships are left out, any measurement will be a poor descriptor of local biodiversity and could constrain the emergence of richer and more nuanced classifications (Ureta, S., Otaegui, A.). A start would be to begin gathering qualitative data such as the presence of active cultural practices that augment the aliveness of the land, and to ask local people how they think about their home.

Avoid simplification!

Unlike a single molecule that can be abstracted and financialized with greater ease (such as carbon), biodiversity relates to a web of complex interlocking lives. These lives and the relationships that underlie them are not fungible units. Life is unique to every place and no deft accounting skills can realistically ‘trade’ one forest for another. We need to accept that it will be impossible to fully capture in any calculation the full magnificent extent of our planet’s living systems.

It is for this reason that biodiversity has been referred to as “the anti-commodity” and the opposite of investor’s desires for standardization and comparability.

Goodhart’s Law states that whenever a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure. In the case of biodiversity, great care must be taken in the setting of aspirational goals. For example, if we optimise for species or landscapes that provide us with ‘ecosystem services’, we could ignore other forms of life that are inherently valuable but economically uncapturable. The risk is a tightening feedback loop that externalises harm and simplifies planetary life both on balance sheets and in the living world.

The agriculture industry poses a cautionary tale. Over the last century it has trimmed and dressed wildly alive primary forests and polyculture gardens into single unitary commodities, removing anything from the landscape that it could not financialise or measure, and decimating global biodiversity in the process.

The biodiversity mindset

Let’s be honest. The inclusion of biodiversity in corporate accounting and novel financial products will do little to meaningfully advance our society’s embodied relationship with nature, or our closeness with those who have one.

But the act of measuring biodiversity can.

There’s only so much we can see from a distance or hear from the whispers of inference. Field agents will spread to collect smells and samples, the primary data of life at eye-level. The pace of technological advancement will be augmented by throngs of ecologically sensitive people listening to the land and its people, and beginning to know themselves as constructors of niches.

In looking closely at the lives of other species, we learn to see through their eyes and minds. This perspective grants us a sense of wonder and awe. We deliberate over how to include them in our models of the world, and by doing so our models expand. A planet begins to know itself. Proximity breeds kinship. This is the ground truth. This is one form of life meeting others with senses and science.

Learning Journeys | Ecological Literacy | Author, poet, wilderness guide | Investor | Co-founder Atlas Unbound, Ground Effect (alexafirmenich.com)