How we use cookies

We use Google Analytics cookies to help give you the best experience on our website. By continuing without changing your cookie settings, we assume you agree to this. Please read the Law faculty's cookie statement to find out more.

Skip down to main content
The path of a road curves dramatically to avoid a small wooded area.
Photo by mkjr_ on Unsplash.

Governing Biodiversity and Nature: A False Distinction

The path of a road curves dramatically to avoid a small wooded area.
Photo by mkjr_ on Unsplash.

What is the difference between nature and biodiversity? The 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity defines biodiversity as ‘the variability among living organisms from all sources including, inter alia, terrestrial, marine and other aquatic ecosystems and the ecological complexes of which they are part: this includes diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems’, (Art. 2). Drawing on the pioneering work by E.O. Wilson and other conservation biologists, this definition of biodiversity, now widely implemented into national, regional and local rules and practices, suggests that variability provides a form of insurance for the Earth.

Nature, on the other hand, is conventionally understood as the physical world and everything in it other than people: embracing plants, animals, mountains, oceans and stars. Nature captures the physical world without regard to variability of species or habitats. For many Westerners, nature is pristine, external to humans: protection should bring sites back to their ‘natural’, pre-discovery, state. (Not everyone adheres to this human-nature binary, as Zoe Todd and Juanita Sundberg remind us, this is a particularly European ontology).

This distinction between biodiversity and nature raises a number of questions. One is whether, when resources – land, money, political commitment – are limited, should we prioritise biodiversity or nature? In England, biodiversity rules provide for ‘priority species’ or ‘special areas of conservation’. Species and habitats are listed in appendices and indexes according to their scientific criteria, rather than their location or significance for people. Habitat sites and biodiversity are better protected than nature found on ‘local sites’.

A second question is whether the familiar distinction between ecocentrism and anthropocentrism is itself a product of the human-nature binary and whether we should prioritise ecocentrism over anthropocentrism. While we would all wish the IUCN’s red ‘danger’ list to be as small as possible, any hierarchy between ecocentrism and anthropocentrism soon creates policy confrontations between humans and nature.

Though the distinction between biodiversity and nature is often a latent one for environmental lawyers, conservation scholars have debated it for some time. One useful new starting point is Bram Büscher and Robert Fletcher’s The Conservation Revolution: Radical Ideas for Saving Nature Beyond the Anthropocene. Büscher and Fletcher begin by distinguishing three approaches: mainstream conservation, neo-protectionist, and new conservationism. While their argument is rooted in critiques of capitalist political economies, environmental lawyers will quickly recognise biodiversity designations as neo-protectionist approaches, characterised by their reliance on the physical, spatial separation of the human from nature considered to deserve protection. As Büscher and Fletcher’s analysis asks us: how can we move towards ‘convivial conservation’ where humans live with nature?

In England, conceptual, legal, and spatial emphasis on biodiversity has led to the welcome designation of ‘habitat sites’ (to use modern planning terminology). However, these are differentiated from ‘local sites’, which have far weaker regulatory protection. This distinction both limits the protection of ecological processes, networks, and corridors and also ignores the importance of nature connection for humans. Non-statutory local sites of conservation interest are particularly vulnerable to development applications.

Repeated lockdowns taught all of us how important nature connection is for health and wellbeing and research increasingly demonstrates the importance of access to nature and greenspaces for health and wellbeing. Yet housebuilding targets mean that available green spaces are increasingly allocated for development, particularly in urban and suburban areas, with limited concern for how existing local residents – who may have exercised and enjoyed these sites for many years – can continue to engage with nature. Particularly for people with limited mobility, that is, people without access to a motor vehicle who have to rely on buses or other forms of public transport to reach green, blue, wooded or open spaces, how are they to connect? If there is no protected scientifically important biodiversity in the vicinity, how do local people protect nearby ‘nature’ from development instead?

Conservation scholars have long reviewed distinctions that compartmentalise conservation and human life.  Echoing Büscher and Fletcher’s call for ‘convivial conservation’, lawyers also need to develop frameworks and practices that facilitate living with nature for all people, regardless of their economic, social, or spatial circumstances. We need to connect social, blue, and green infrastructures: humans are not external to nature, we are part of it and it is critical for our wellbeing.

As Chief Seattle said: ‘Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.’ Reflecting on these connections, we need to reconsider our concepts, recognising that distinguishing biodiversity from nature makes little theoretical, ecological, or legal sense.


Author note: This blog post is an output from a research project funded by the British Academy Just Transitions for Biodiversity (2021-2022). The project team consisted of Prof Antonia Layard (University of Oxford); Prof Roger Few (University of East Anglia); Dr Sophia Hatzisavvidou (University of Bath); Dr Laura de Vito (University of the West of England); Dr Leslie Mabon (Open University); Adam Marshall (University of Bristol); Dr Odirilwe Selomane (Stellenbosch University); Gilles Marciniak (Future Earth); and Hannah Moersberger (EuropaBON).

About the Author

Headshot of Antonia Layard

Professor Antonia Layard

Tutorial Fellow in Law at St. Anne’s College and Professor of Law at the University of Oxford

Antonia Layard is a Tutorial Fellow in Law at St. Anne’s College and Professor of Law at the University of Oxford. Her research interests are in law and geography where she explores how law, legality and maps construct space, place, nature and ‘the local’. She is currently writing a book, the Paradox of Public Space to be published with OUP.

Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap