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close this bookDiversity, Globalization, and the Ways of Nature (IDRC, 1995, 234 p.)
close this folder13. Diversity and human survival
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentDocumenting diversity
View the documentResources for the future
View the documentDiversity of living systems
View the documentCauses and effects of the loss of natural diversity
View the documentDiversity and culture
View the documentRestoring what is lost
View the documentBiodiversity and research

Documenting diversity

In most cases, it is difficult to acquire precise knowledge about species diversity. Although it is possible to survey plants or animals living in restricted areas - a few square metres, for example - it is impossible to survey all plants and animals in larger ecosystems or to decipher the complex web of their interrelations. Usually, only the main (larger, more frequent) species and a few varieties are catalogued.

Entomologists believe that there are several million insect species, perhaps as many as 500 thousand species of Choleoptera. The number of varieties of these species can run to a hundred million or more.

High-diversity ecosystems, such as the rain forests and coral reefs, are poorly understood. There are often more than 100 species of trees in I hectare of Amazon or New Guinea rain forest and perhaps as many as 200 species of molluscs in 1 square kilometre of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. The task of the taxonomist is a slow and difficult one, and it will take centuries before a significant portion of the Earth’s biota can be identified and described. By then, however, it may be too late.

Another factor adding to the difficulty of identifying biological species, in addition to their sheer numbers, is the fact that they are not fixed components of the biosphere, but rather a continuously evolving complex, difficult to keep “updated” at any given moment. Species are only a small step in the evolutionary ladder, and an adequate understanding would require not only a description of the organism, but also of its previous evolutionary path and the trends for its future. The knowledge and resources are not available to allow this to be done with sufficient detail.

In dealing with cultural diversity, the problems are similar. It is possible to inventory languages. If they are not written, scripts can be invented, dictionaries can be assembled, and pronunciations and accents can be recorded. Once the language speakers are gone, however, they take with them not only the deep semantic code, which no recording can preserve, but also the basic elements that make a language - its dynamism, its changes, its role as a potential tool for social learning and innovation. Because languages are also windows to a whole imaginary universe, language extinction represents an irreversible ideological loss.

Many other elements of knowledge are being lost in the rush toward standardization and homogenization: local knowledge about plants, animals, appropriate technology, environmental and social strategies, the organization of societies and their survival in the diverse planetary environments, and spiritual approaches to nature.