Coping with uncertainty: The importance of biocultural diversity

28 February 2011 | Article

Diversity, both cultural and biological, is the raw material for evolution. Without them we will not be able to adapt to the rapidly changing conditions that face us, says IUCN’s Regional Director for South America João Stacishin de Queiroz.

Why is it so important to conserve biodiversity? For ecologists and conservationists the answer is easy, albeit at times unconvincing, and range from practical anthropocentric reasons (environmental services) to less tangible spiritual and ethical considerations. Social scientists have an analogous set of justifications for the conservation of different cultures.

A convincing argument

To the layman however, the conservation of biodiversity is neither important nor urgent. Hence, for decision makers, it is politically difficult to support investment in conservation. Those of us in the conservation community need to help them argue convincingly that the conservation of nature is essential for the future of humankind. We can approach this from many angles. Here I have chosen to illustrate the importance of biodiversity to our ability to adapt to a rapidly and unpredictably changing environment.

I focus on the biggest challenge we are facing: accelerated human-induced climate change. While the most sophisticated computer models so far designed have successfully predicted global changes and trends, we are still unable to foretell changes at smaller spatial scales, or the exact location, or intensity of extreme events. This will remain so for as long as the planet transitions from one climate state to another. The question to those concerned with society’s ability to adapt to climate change is: How can we adapt if we do not know what to adapt to?

Strength in diversity

The theory of evolution points the way. It tells us that populations under pressure are able to evolve because diverse gene pools under pressure yield organisms that are able to cope with new conditions. Societies and the economic systems that have evolved under relatively stable conditions face a situation analogous to that of a population under stress—a climate that is changing rapidly and unpredictably. Society’s ability to adapt, like that of a species, hinges on the biological and cultural diversity that it encompasses. It is from this diversity that viable systems will emerge. Diversity, both cultural and biological is the raw material for evolution; without them society will be unable to adapt to ever-changing conditions.

A race against time

Fortunately, humankind has many examples of social systems that exist in extreme conditions from which we can derive important adaptation lessons. Pastoralists in the dry regions of Africa survive in extreme climates by using traditional knowledge and movement to exploit diversity at the species and ecosystem level. Their resilience is such that in southern Angola, pastoral societies survived prolonged droughts and a devastating 35-year civil war. On Bolivia’s Altiplano, Aimara communities use crop and environmental diversity to devise production systems that cope with droughts, frosts, hail, floods and economic uncertainty. But if we are going to benefit from this diversity and knowledge we need to hurry up and conserve them. Like record temperatures, the rate of loss of biological and cultural diversity is unprecedented.