i do not like the word biodiversity, meant to express variability among living organisms from all sources including, inter alia terrestrial, marine and other aquatic ecosystems and the ecological complexes of which they are a part. We all know that there are basically two life forms on the face of the earth - plants and animals. One does not know for sure if plants and animals, other than homo sapiens, have thought of biodiversity.
One can talk of two distinct types of diversities. I label them as vertical and horizontal, for purposes of this discussion. Take the plant life system. There is a considerable degree of diversity among them, species-wise, product-wise, usefulness-wise, length of life-wise and so on.Should we opt for one species that can offer a variety of uses (or utility) or several species that can offer one single use or purpose; or should one choose a plantation of short life or long life? Should one opt for species that have certain attributes such as distinctiveness, rarity, an endangered status? This is also true for the debate on animal life.
I call this way of identifying the issue as a vertical dissection of true biodiversity conservation process. The logic is vertical for the reason that one speaks about one form of life system without reference to the other. More importantly, other non-life characteristics and attributes of the earth, such as soil (including minerals), air, altitude, and water are not brought into the discussion.
A more comprehensive way of understanding biodiversity is to go by its horizontal linkages. The link between one plant species, for instance, hibiscus, with the insects, other plants, soil type, altitude, air and water quality, wild and domesticated animal life, and above all, with the homo sapiens, reveal the true attributes of biodiversity. They are to be looked into at any point in time and over time, which alone enables us to understand the real problem of conservation. Are we doing all this in our analysis of the conservation problem? Or we are just satisfied by the definition? Most of the debate on biodiversity conservation is centered on conserving everything one can preserve. But everything we want to do in life costs something, including conserving biodiversity. Are we prepared for that?
This should perhaps clarify the reason for my not liking the word biodiversity. The biosphere, being very complex, is an expression of bio-plurality. It is the composition of the living and non-living entities whose harmonious co-existence alone can make the ecosystem sustainable. This set of plurality is what we should be aiming at. The present approach, on the other hand, by many scientific communities is to look at it in a more and more diversified and isolated way. While they add to the knowledge base, they have much less to do with sustainability of the diversity. And sustaining bio-plurality is much more than conserving biodiversity.
I now have another problem in answering the same question, from a socio-economic perspective. I ask a reverse question such as from whose perspective should we value a tiger, or for that matter any thing else, say fuelwood? Let me begin by saying that there are a number of players in the human ecological system.I group them broadly as individuals, communities, regional, national and global entities. Take the case of fuelwood. Individuals, particularly those living in forest villages, are dependent on fuelwood for their basic need, cooking. However, their valuation may not come in their expression of willingness to pay. After all, willingness to pay depends upon attributes such as economic background and compulsions, historical, social and cultural heritage. Clearly, their expression of willingness to pay and the value they assign would differ considerably, the latter being quite high.
As far as the community is concerned, it depends on whether a community as a single entity ever thought of valuing fuelwood. If they have ever thought of it as a single entity, they would have also thought of managing it. Hence, at the community level, the value of fuelwood depends upon the management practice and the existence of community institutions. Given the human attitude in general about community level management of common property resources (distinct from individual level), I would imagine that they would value fuelwood at a level lesser than the individual level. At the regional level, the state may be acting on collection and distribution of fuelwood, having economies of scale.
At the national level, the value of fuelwood, perhaps is based on considerations such as forestry management, contracting and collection of short and long timbers (commercially), guaranteed revenue for the states and so on, making fuelwood more as a by-product. I, therefore, presume that it will have a still lower value. At the global level, fuelwood, perhaps means carbon. Hence, its removal and burning would be considered as loss of carbon sink and adding to atmospheric pollution. Hence, it may be valued in terms of the carbon sink loss and pollution abatement costs. Both of these being quite small as compared to those from hydrocarbon sector, the global fuelwood value would be the lowest. I, therefore, find it extremely difficult to attempt a valuation of any component of bio-plurality as a single number, except for saying that its value would decline as one moves away from the individual, local and regional to national and global levels.
This value pessimism need not discourage the drive for maintaining bio-plurality. We are now looking for the total value of biodiversity and of any of its constituents. One can have the following working rule for valuation. In a complementary or cooperative way, the more complex the mutual dependency, the higher would be the value of that resource. It is this level of complex dependency and cyclic relationships that need to be identified and quantified for arriving at some meaningful ranking of such resources for taking views on conservation. Who will make a beginning?
Let me give a try. One is not sure how the different constituents of the biosphere would rank their own preferences, values and dependencies on others including themselves.
Some illustrative rankings by four selected constituents of the biosphere about their dependency on others including themselves are given in the table How useful are we ?. In a utilitarian sense, they are expressions of preferences. Hypothetically, it is assumed here that each of the constitutes rank themselves 'as most dependent upon' and hence rank themselves individually as the first or highest. Humans ranks themselves as first; perhaps water would be ranked as the second most resource on which humans are dependent, soil as the third and forest as the last. Similar rankings are assigned by other constituents. The last row stands for an index of average demand. In a sense, it is a relative value of each of them in terms of biological demand value ranked by the constituents of the bio-plurality. It is this way of valuing that is more representative of the true valuation, free from market influences. Can we have such a matrix of information from scientific and socio-economic studies?
Gopal K Kadekodi is the head of the development planning centre at the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi
How useful are we?
Dependency ranking by the constituents of