(Fischer, A.; Young, J. C., 2007)

What do you know about biodiversity? Would you like to be more involved in biodiversity management policies in your local area? Biodiversity is a hot topic in environmental sciences and policy, often linked with a growing awareness of the need for sustainability and conservation of a species-rich and diverse ecosystem. Scientists have been exploring biodiversity for many years and suggesting methods for retaining biodiversity but these theories and resultant policies often have little value unless members of the general public are involved and enthusiastic about playing their part in putting these policies into action. As a result, the participation of the public in environmental decision-making and management is increasingly seen as essential for the success of conservation initiatives. But what do the general public really understand about biodiversity?

A recent paper published in Biological Conservation looks to answer this question. “Ecological scientists and conservation practitioners have… argued that a lack of understanding of biodiversity issues by the public is a barrier to their effective participation in decision-making processes,” say the authors Anke Fischer and Juliette Young. They arranged a series of focus groups with members of the general public from the Cairngorms National Park area in Scotland to examine individuals’ mental associations with the term ‘biodiversity’ and the meanings associated with biodiversity-related concepts independent of scientific terminology. Topics explored both verbally and visually included

  • the understanding of biodiversity,
  • concepts of nature,
  • views on the role of humans in nature,
  • values related to nature and biodiversity,
  • attitudes towards biodiversity management measures and
  • the perception of changes and threats to biodiversity.

The results…

The authors state that “Our analysis suggests that individuals have certain, often concurrent, characteristics of biodiversity in mind that are clearly evaluated as either positive or negative.” For example, balance was considered as positive with food-webs being closely associated to the concept of equilibrium, and dominance of single species was evaluated as negative. Naturalness, i.e. the absence of human influence on biodiversity was considered by some groups as positive.

Between the groups of participants, four stances can be identified:

  1. Mountaineers and birdwatchers: These groups knew a lot about biodiversity and saw humankind as separate from nature, natural systems as very fragile, and humans as generally harmful to their environment. “We have no concept of management, we tinker with things. Somebody should draw the line and say ‘This is how we are going to do it’. Yeah well we should keep people out because people are just a bloody nuisance!”
  2. Tourists: This group saw man as a user of nature who could potentially, but not necessarily have negative impacts on nature. Aesthetic as well as economic benefits of nature were recognised. “I think environmental considerations should stand as an equal partner to financial considerations because you can’t continue to raid the landscape because it is the landscape that wins people back into the hills.”
  3. Foresters and "farmer students": This group saw man as the manager of nature – foresters in particular saw their own influence on biodiversity as positive and an integral part of their professional remit. Natural systems were seen as robust and at the same time, change and evolution were considered as a part of nature. “Just give it time. Forget looking at the clock… You don’t want it to stand still. In a lot of ways you want the area to move forward,” and “I think it does a pretty good job itself. We don’t necessarily have to go to the lengths that we are at the moment.”
  4. Local residents: This group was not so concerned with the general issues of biodiversity but expressed their concern with institutional issues and management implementation. They felt alienated from the process of conservation in the park and dismayed at the effects of measures in the park. “I think it is really vicious and the National Park are sponsoring the extermination of the wild cat.”

Which group do you belong to? Are you a “mountaineer”, a “tourist” or a “forester”? Are you for complete naturalness, careful use, or management and change? Or are you a “resident”, seeing the direct effects of biodiversity management and if so, are you happy with the measures that are taking place? Do you feel alienated from management decisions or are you getting involved?

What does this research tell us going forward? Members of the general public express attitudes towards biodiversity management measures that are “well grounded in complex mental concepts”. Concepts associated with biodiversity are closely linked to individuals’ attitudes towards biodiversity management in general, which varies according to professional background, whether or not they are living in the park, and individuals’ views of humankind. Also, institutional and procedural aspects of environmental management play an influential role especially in those cases where the local population is directly affected by management measures. The authors argue that “approaches that reveal such value judgments and their conceptual contexts are essential instruments for an improved design and communication of biodiversity policies that will be more likely to find public support.”

If you’d like to increase your awareness and understanding of biodiversity there are a number of websites that you can go to including Exploring Biodiversity for an interactive introduction to UK biodiversity, DEFRA’s page on biodiversity, including a number of reports and resources, definitions of biodiversity and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry for biodiversity.

"Biological diversity means the full range of variety and variability within and among living organisms and the ecological complexes in which they occur, and encompasses ecosystem or community diversity, species diversity, and genetic diversity." Proposed US Congressional Biodiversity Act, HR1268 (1990).


  • Fischer, A.; Young, J. C. (2007) Understanding mental constructs of biodiversity: Implications for biodiversity management and conservation. Biological Conservation 136 (2), 271-282.

More research on public awareness and understanding of Biodiversity:

  • Matthews, M.H. (1985) Young children’s representations of the environment: a comparison of techniques. Journal of Environmental Psychology 5, 261–278.
  • Elder, J.; Coffin, C.; Farrior, M. (1998) Engaging the public on biodiversity – a road map for education and communication strategies. The Biodiversity Project, Madison, USA. <>.
  • Hull, R. B.; Robertson, D. P.; Kendra, A. (2001) Public understandings of nature: a case study of local knowledge about "natural" forest conditions. Society & Natural Resources 14 (4), 325-340.
  • Hunter, L.; Brehm, J. (2003) Qualitative insight into public knowledge of and concern with biodiversity. Human Ecology 31, 309–320.
  • Renn, O. (2006) Participatory processes for designing environmental policies. Land Use Policy 23, 34–43.

1 Comment

  1. Leonard on 10th April 2010 at 2:57 pm

    Why developed countries don`t care for conserving Earth`s biodiversity though they know that is them who harms the enviroment than any other indviduals e.g Availabity of many industries which normally uses non-renewable resources in countries such USA,Australia,Japan etc eliminate hazardous gases(greenhouse gases) into the atmosphere which ultimately results in climatic disasters such as global warming

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