Biologists, Business, and Biodiversity: Natural Selection in the Market may Create unlikely Allies

Environmental and economic challenges assail the globe. Finding common ground whereupon biologist’s and business’s energy can focus may help reverse the crisis’ momentum.

Generally speaking, biologist’s and business person’s worldviews differ. A biologist’s worldview is distinctly non-commercial. Their interest lies in the myriad components of the natural world and the knowledge therein. Businessmen, on the other hand, are for the most part focused on human activities, conflicts, and desires.

Yet both sustain their identity through a matching commitment of energy and creative effort. Both top-flight biologists and entrepreneurs nurture their innovative minds to excellence by the physical experiences they create for themselves as they navigate their respective worlds.

If there were ever a time when such excellence-in-action – and collaboration – were needed, it is now.

Economic Change

As the nation struggles with economic change, Americans look to business and entrepreneurs to address the problem. Recent polling by the Kauffman Foundation of Entrepreneurship showed that by a margin of three to one (63% to 22%) that Americans favor business creation policies as opposed to the government creating new private and public sector jobs. In fact, 79% of respondents say entrepreneurs are critical for the recovery process.

Environmental Change

Concomitantly, as the nation struggles with environmental change, Americans look to conservation scientists. Even at the heart of 2008’s high gas prices and growing recession, Gallop polls showed Americans favored environmental protection over energy production.

This is a sea-wind of change from previous decades. There is an old economic axiom: “When there is change, there is opportunity – for entrepreneurs.” The question is, in what ways can entrepreneurism and environmental protection be linked?

One possible area is biodiversity.

Biodiversity’s Economic Value

Biodiversity is defined as the variety and number of organisms in a particular community or ecosystem. Two decades ago, it was thought that the economic value of biodiversity would be found in the potential future use of genetic material for, say, pharmaceutical purposes. Preserving biodiversity was therefore viewed as a way of keeping a diverse “biological” portfolio of assets with potential future yield.

Today, in a time of climate – change uncertainty, there is another, possibly more important value: biodiversity as a source of ecosystem resilience. Healthy ecosystems provide humans with many important commodities, the most obvious and important being food. Historically, humans have valued the goods, like food, provided by natural ecosystems; however, the services – such as sustainable production – provided by the ecological systems themselves were often taken for granted. Portions of an ecosystem not readily seen as connected to the production of the marketable commodity oft-times were destroyed as inconsequential.

Years of field studies, however, suggest that an ecosystem under stress, such as the occurrence of increasingly variable climate, manages to sustain most of its functions even when the system’s species composition changes. This is because in a diverse system, there are species “waiting in the wings” to take over the functions of those decimated or destroyed. Economically, this is similar to a technological processes model’s “assumption of substitutability” among inputs in commodity production.

But resilience presupposes that there are species waiting in the wings. Thus, a greening of consumer opinion – i.e., the opinion of those who vote with their dollars – suggests that there is growing market value and profit for those businesses who strive to maintain diversity and resilience.

A Greener Economy?

The path forward into this paradigm shift of a greener economy is not clear. Nor will it be easy. In many ways it will stretch and flex business and biology’s worldviews like nothing ever has. But the industrial world seems ready for it. Biologists possess many of the investigative tools necessary to guide it. And entrepreneurs have the energy, the profit motive, and the tradition of resourcefulness to make it happen.

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