Is Biodiversity a Bad Word?

Here’s another tidbit from the “Language of Conservation Memo 2013” — “biodiversity” is a “bad word to avoid.”

The memo doesn’t explain this: The word simply appears on a list. So I’m left to wonder why one of my favorite terms is not a favorite among survey respondents.

I suppose “biodiversity” sounds technical because of the prefix. “Bio” isn’t hard to understand, but it does set us squarely in the realm of biological science. To many people, science can be scary and/or boring. And some people think “diversity” is a liberal code-word for “anything goes.” I won’t get into politics here, but I can see how adding a scary or boring prefix to a politically charged word might give you a bad word to avoid.

To replace it, the memo suggests using “fish and wildlife.” I don’t think “fish and wildlife” means the same thing as “biodiversity.” The former is just critters; the latter is a wide range of different types of organisms, connected by their existence in a given place at a given time. “Fish and wildlife,” while simpler, does not convey that intended flavor.

Also, “biodiversity” is the central concept in one of my favorite books. Edward O. Wilson’s “The Diversity of Life” describes how life on earth evolved and argues that biological diversity itself is worth conserving. When I read Wilson’s book in 1994, it showed me that science writing can be accessible and lyrical, passionate and accurate — setting a standard I will spend a lifetime striving to achieve.

There may be sentimental reasons behind my reluctance to give up “biodiversity” entirely, but I can take the memo’s advice by using it more strategically. If “fish and wildlife” will do just as well, I can use that. But to convey the idea of multiple species and their connections, I can still call on “biodiversity.” I’ll just check to make sure the context supports it, rather than assuming my reader will fill in all that this nuanced, beautiful word means to me.

This post is in response to “The Language of Conservation 2013: Updated Recommendations on How to Communicate Effectively to Build Support for Conservation.” This representative national survey of American voters was commissioned by The Nature Conservancy in 2012 and conducted by a bipartisan research team.


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