Connecting Cultural and Biological Diversity

Module Progress:

For this module, first look at the picture below and consider the following questions:

  1. What do these maps show?
  2. What sort of relationships can you draw between these two maps?

You might have heard about biodiversity before, which is the variety of all life forms and species in the world (or in a given habitat). According to the Center for Biological Diversity,  “Although extinction is a natural phenomenon, it occurs at a natural “background” rate of about one to five species per year. Scientists estimate we’re now losing species at 1,000 to 10,000 times the background rate, with literally dozens going extinct every day”. Biodiversity conservation is about saving life on Earth in all its forms and keeping natural ecosystems functioning and healthy.

Biocultural diversity is the correlation between traditional cultures and the protection of biodiversity. As the maps above show, it is interesting to note that in areas of high cultural diversity amongst humans, there is high biodiversity of species. 

Cultural diversity can be defined as: “the field of biocultural diversity (Maffi, 2001a, 2005) – drawing from anthropological, ethnobiological, and ethnoecological insights about the relationships of human language, knowledge, and practices with the environment – takes as its fundamental assumption the existence of an “inextricable link” between biological and cultural diversity” (Source).

Biocultural diversity comprises the diversity of life in all of its manifestations: biological, cultural, and linguistic, which are interrelated (and possibly co-evolved) within a complex socio-ecological adaptive system. The above definition comprises the following key elements:

  1. The diversity of life is made up not only of the diversity of plants and animal species, habitats, and ecosystems found on the planet, but also of the diversity of human cultures and languages.
  2. These diversities do not exist in separate and parallel realms, but rather they interact with and affect one another in complex ways.
  3. The links among these diversities have developed over time through mutual adaptation between humans and the environment at the local level, possibly of a coevolutionary nature.

The following videos give more information about how cultural diversity and biocultural diversity are defined and connected:

Film 1: Juan Mayr – On Cultural Diversity and the Environment

Film 2: The Christensen Fund – Maintaining Biocultural Diversity

Film 3: Vandana Shiva – On Earth Democracy


Excerpt 1: Biocultural Diversity for Sustainability (Ch 18)

by Luisa Maffi | from The Sage Handbook of Environment and Society

…From the perspective of biocultural diversity, a sustainable world means a world in which not only biological diversity, but also cultural and linguistic diversity thrive, as critical components of the web of life and contributing factors in the vitality, organization, and resilience of the ecosystems that sustain life. Harmon (2002) points to the interwoven (and possibly coevolved) diversity in nature and culture as the “preeminent fact of existence,” the basic condition of life on earth. The continued decrease of biocultural diversity, he warns, would “staunch the historical flow of being itself, the evolutionary processes through which the vitality of all life has come down to us through the ages” (Harmon, 2002, p. xiii).

Others have similarly stressed the evolutionary significance of diversity not only in nature but also in culture and language, as a way of “keeping options alive” for the future of humanity and the Earth (Maffi, 1998, 2001a). Bernard (1992, p. 82) has suggested that “[l]inguistic diversity … is at least the correlate of (though not the cause of) diversity of adaptational ideas” and that therefore “any reduction of language diversity diminishes the adaptational strength of our species because it lowers the pool of knowledge from which we can draw.” Mühlhäusler (1995, p. 160) has argued that convergence toward majority cultural models increases the likelihood that more and more people will encounter the same “cultural blind spots” – undetected instances in which the prevailing cultural model fails to provide adequate solutions to societal problems. Instead, he proposes, “[i]t is by pooling the resources of many understandings that more reliable knowledge can arise;” and “access to these perspectives is best gained through a diversity of languages” (p. 160). Along similar lines, Krauss (1996) has proposed that global linguistic diversity constitutes an intellectual web of life, or “logosphere,” that envelops the planet and is as essential to human survival as the biosphere – a concept of course reminiscent of Teilhard de Chardin’s “noosphere” and of the classic notion of the Logos.

Over the past decade, international organizations concerned with the conservation of biodiversity and cultural heritage have begun to listen. In particular, UNESCO, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), the CBD, and IUCN – The World Conservation Union, have variously included in their priorities and action plans the improved understanding of the links and synergies between biological diversity and cultural diversity, as well as the role of culture and traditional knowledge and local languages in the conservation of biodiversity. We are perhaps approaching a stage at which it will be recognized that the traditional “three-legged stool” of sustainable development – environment, society, and economy – should be turned into a four-legged one by the addition of a fourth “pillar” culture. These are significant achievements for a field like that of biocultural diversity, that is barely more than a decade old. Yet, there is no singing victory. The momentum may be building in some quarters, but the global political will to act to protect and restore biocultural diversity has yet to materialize. Even within conservation and other international organizations that have adopted the topic, the idea that the conservation of biodiversity should go hand in hand with support for the maintenance and revitalization of local cultures and languages remains sometimes controversial. And many countries still balk at the very idea of acknowledging the cultural and linguistic diversity within their borders, or are only prepared to celebrate it as a treasure from the past, disconnected from present realities and irrelevant to issues of environmental protection and sustainability (if such issues are on the agenda at all, in a world that continues to be dominated by materialism and the pursuit of unbridled economic growth). The general Zeitgeist also causes public opinion – the key to political will – to continue to be largely unaware or even oblivious of the growing deterioration of our biocultural world.

If there is hope that the efforts of grassroots communities and of those researchers, practitioners, and activists who embrace a biocultural perspective will be more broadly supported, this hope resides in capacity building and education about conservation in both nature and culture. “[The concept of ] conservation reminds us of our duties to nature and to the future, without which the pace of economic growth will merely be a measure of the speed at which we approach the abyss” (Sacks, 2002, p. 174). If people “in the biocultural trenches” can have access to the conceptual and political tools they need, and if a new generation of people can be raised with a firm understanding that, as Harmon (2002) puts it, “diversity in nature and culture makes us human,” then humanity will have a chance to pull back from the brink of the abyss and go on to chart a new path toward ecological and cultural sustainability.