Letting Go to Move Forward

I have been passionate about biodiversity conservation for decades. In May 2019, the United Nations released a report about the biodiversity crisis[2]and found that 1 million species on earth are now at risk of extinction due to human activity. The report found that the crisis is caused primary by patterns of economic growth, demographic trends, inequities, and weaknesses in governance.

Biodiversity—short for biological diversity—means the diversity of life in all its forms—the diversity of species, of genetic variations within one species, and of ecosystems.[1]

This is a real and significant crisis that is related, yet different from the climate crisis. Habitat loss and isolation makes it harder for natural systems to adapt to the changing climate. This is a problem because biodiversity makes human life on earth possible, so we need to be paying attention.

“You keep using that word. I don't think that word means what you think it means.”[3]

 In late 2018, an Australian study of 499 people found that most don’t know what ‘biodiversity’ means[4]. Australia has invested significant resources in biodiversity conservation for more than 25 years. It makes me wonder, what does a word really mean? Is it what is in the reference books, or is it what people understand?

This is me early in my career. You can see I am possessed by the word biodiversity.

This is me early in my career. You can see I am possessed by the word biodiversity.

I am really attached to the word ‘biodiversity’ because it simply captures a complex concept. But I have a graduate degree in biodiversity, and biodiversity was in three of my job titles. And what I’ve learned over the past 20 years is that if I want to make a difference for biodiversity, I’m going to have to let it go.

I fought it. “We can define it”, I said, “we can explain it”. Over time there were data to support changing the words. Polls sponsored by conservation organization tested words for understanding and found several better alternatives for biodiversity. From a scientific perspective, it’s an imprecise term that I’ve seen used incorrectly in scientific papers. 

What finally changed my mind was experience. When you have 15 minutes in front of a town board to talk about why they should incorporate biodiversity into planning, is it the best use of time to spend the first 5 (or 10) minutes explaining what biodiversity is? And even more importantly, do people really need to understand what that word means in order to do take actions that benefit biodiversity? 

One of the key motivations for people to make the changes that are necessary for conservation is confidence that they can make a difference. Using words people don’t understand does not instill confidence. 

There is a whole lot of work to do, and part of that work is translating technical language into plain language. It’s not at all easy to make the concepts easier to understand without losing the meaning. Yet it’s one of my favorite things to do. If you need help translating a technical conservation report into plain language, let me know.

[1]From the glossary in: Hesselink, F.J. e.a., 2007. Communication, Education, and Public Awareness, a toolkit for the Convention on Biological Diversity, Montreal. 

[2]The report was released by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services: IPBES. 2019. Summary for policymakers of the global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. S. Díaz, J. Settele, E. S. Brondizio E.S., H. T. Ngo, M. Guèze, J. Agard, A. Arneth, P. Balvanera, K. A. Brauman, S. H. M. Butchart, K. M. A. Chan, L. A. Garibaldi, K. Ichii, J. Liu, S. M. Subramanian, G. F. Midgley, P. Miloslavich, Z. Molnár, D. Obura, A. Pfaff, S. Polasky, A. Purvis, J. Razzaque, B. Reyers, R. Roy Chowdhury, Y. J. Shin, I. J. Visseren-Hamakers, K. J. Willis, and C. N. Zayas (eds.). IPBES secretariat, Bonn, Germany. 44 pages. Available at: 

[3]Line by Inigo Montoya played by Mandy Patinkin in: Scheinman, A. and R. Reiner (Producers), & R. Reiner (Director). 1987. The Princess Bride [Motion Picture]. United States: 20thCentury Fox

[4]Kiley, H.M., Ainsworth, G.B. and Weston, M.A., 2019. Modest levels of interpretability of the term ‘biodiversity’, mediated by educational level, among the Australian public. Pacific Conservation Biology, 25(2), pp.208-210.