19 Nov 2018

We Interview the Godfather of Biodiversity

Thomas Lovejoy, who coined the phrase "biodiversity", speaks to us about dinosaur calls, public awareness, and the urgent need for humanity to start seeing itself as part of nature.

Thomas Lovejoy © U.S. Embassy Lima
By Shaun Hurrell

Twenty years ago, eminent conservation biologist Thomas Lovejoy came up with a word that encapsulated not only the variety of life on earth, but the life-giving services that delicately-balanced ecosystems provide to us all.

Since then, his long and varied career has always centred on conserving them. At the age of 77, he is University Professor of Environmental Science and Policy at George Mason University. Talking to BirdLife, he shares his thoughts on dinosaur calls, public awareness, and the urgent need for humanity to start seeing itself as part of nature.


You’ve been credited with coining the term ‘biodiversity’. Can you explain how you came up with the word?

What’s interesting is that there were three of us who came up with the term ‘Biological Diversity’ in 1980. None of us were thinking we’d invented something new, none of us were thinking “oh, maybe I was first” – it just flowed naturally from the way we were thinking scientifically and environmentally at the time. And it was only later that Elliott Norse, who was one of the three, went back and looked at it and said that I was the first.

What was the purpose behind the word?

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Well, it was really intended to address the complexity and diversity in nature, and take us beyond thinking about the traditional forms of conservation, which would be about a particular species, to thinking about conserving the variety of life on earth. Today, we’re talking about the biodiversity crisis and how pressing that is.

Do you have any thoughts on how to get this issue into the public consciousness?

I think we need to do two things in particular. One is make people realise that we’re not separate from nature in the least, and that what we really need to do is embed ourselves in the natural world and stop thinking about it as something that can be protected in a particular place with a little fence around it. But I also think people need to understand how much biology actually contributes to their daily lives. Whether it’s the prescription that you got at the drugstore, or the water from the watershed, or the composition of the atmosphere, we’re benefiting from the natural world every second of our lives.

Do you enjoy going out and experiencing nature yourself?

My favourite thing in the world is to go to my favourite camp in the Amazon, which is essentially an unbroken forest all the way to the Guianas. It’s like the forest primeval – it’s like being in the heart of the living planet. I love to take people there, it’s always transformative.

What do you think is the greatest challenge in communicating the biodiversity crisis today?

Yes, there’s a crisis – but we should spend less time elaborating on the details of the crisis, and more time helping people to understand that they really are part of nature, and it’s in everybody’s basic interest to protect the variety of life on earth.

We totally agree with you!

You know, it’s not only that: nature is beautiful, it’s fascinating. As E. O. Wilson once said, every child had a bug period, he just never grew out of his! And we all should be that way.

What’s your favourite bird species – if you have a favourite?

That’s really hard! You know, for David Attenborough, it would be a bird of paradise – I think for me it might be one of the manakins: little fruit-eating birds of the New World tropics which have elaborate dances, and there’s one of them that has a cap which is like iridescent mother-of-pearl. It’s spectacular.

We talk a lot about birds being indicators of the health of the planet. In our latest State of the World’s Birds report we call it ‘taking the pulse of the planet’. What are your thoughts on this concept?

Basically, if you save the variety of birds on this planet, you will save the variety of life, at least on land. So they’re great indicators of the overall health of the environment. And they’re very accessible to people, because birds are basically very visual organisms, and we’re very visual, so we respond to their elaborate plumages and cues. And we’re also reasonably auditory, and they use all kinds of auditory communication. Interestingly enough, it’s recently been determined that in any bird which makes its song with a syrinx, the syrinx actually goes back to the dinosaurs that gave rise to birds. So some of those dinosaurs were making strange, bird-like noises. Isn’t that amazing?

For 2018, BirdLife teamed up with National Geographic to declare the Year Of The Bird. A key component of this is encouraging members of the public to make small but meaningful steps to benefit nature. In your opinion, what is the one thing that every person could do tomorrow that would make the biggest impact in preserving biodiversity?

Well, I would suggest two things. The first step is just to go and visit some local piece of nature, and then the next thing would be actually taking some kids to see it, some friends to see it, and help them to see the connection between nature and the quality of our life. You know, this is a living planet, and most people are under the illusion that it works as a physical system – absolutely not. It is a combined physical and biological system. And it controls the composition of the atmosphere, controls the flow of water, and all kinds of other things that make it a habitable planet.

Do you have any examples of how much an ecosystem can survive when a certain number of species have been removed from it? When will it collapse?

Ecosystems will go through small collapses, but they don’t usually go through big collapses – they just erode, and become less capable of doing what they were able to do before. So what we’re going through as a planet is the erosion of the biology of the planet, and its ability to support people – and it makes no sense at all.

You attended our Flyway Summit in Abu Dhabi, where attendees from a whole variety of different countries and sectors came together to discuss the future of conservation: does that give you hope for the future?

It’s incredibly encouraging to see – I don’t even know how many countries were represented – probably a few dozen in the end, from all over the world, caring deeply about the future of birds. The main focus of the meeting was on migratory birds – and when you actually think about what migratory birds do, it’s just staggering. I once flew from Washington to San Jose in Costa Rica, and then spent another two or three hours in the car, and then I got where I was going at one in the morning. And then I had to be out the door at 6am to go with a graduate student who was mist-netting birds, and it was the first day that I caught a full migrant. It was a yellow warbler which I got to take out of the net, and that bird had just flown a greater distance than I had come – all the way, probably, from Canada, all on its own. And when you blew the feathers away and looked at it, you could see that it had burned every little bit of fat, probably burning protein at the end of the trip. And if that isn’t something wondrous, I don’t know what is.

What, in your opinion, is a major threat to biodiversity that doesn’t get enough airtime, and needs to be discussed more?

One of the things I worry about a lot is the soup of man-made chemicals that we live in. And the medicine taking out so many vultures [diclofenac] is just one example out of tens of thousands of man-made chemicals. So I worry about that a lot, and think the more we can move back towards using molecules from nature, which degrade naturally, the better off we’ll be.

Why do you think it is that people won’t change their attitudes?

Well, there are two parts to that problem. One is, it’s very easy for an individual to think, well, it’s just me – how can that make a difference? But it all adds up. And the other is thinking about ourselves as apart from the environment. Probably, the majority of people on this planet suffer from that to one degree or another. And when you think that way, you don’t even stop to think whether something you’re doing might pollute the planet. Personally, I think it’s a social primate problem – we like to spend time grooming each other, without really thinking about what’s going on in the habitat.

That’s a very good way of putting it!

 I once read it was a little bit like a troop of baboons grooming each other while the environmental lion sneaks up.

Yes, it’s way beyond just a scientific problem.

That’s right – it’s a sort of human behaviour/human attitude problem. And yes, it’s great that more and more people are living in cities, in the sense that that can take a lot of pressure off the natural world, but it also increases this sense of not needing nature. So you need a lot of counter-effort to keep people aware.