The last decade of the 20th century was the first time a sense of urgency about the global-scale degradation of natural habitats, and the resultant threats to potentially millions of species, galvanized an effort to both study and conserve what was at risk. Edward O. Wilson (1988) was the first to publish the word ''biodiversity'' in the 1988 proceedings from a conference held in 1986 organized by W. J. Rosen, who originally coined the term. The current decimation of species, commonly called the biodiversity crisis, was the subject of Wilson's landmark book entitled The Diversity of Life, published in 1992. Subsequently, many other publications (Peters and Lovejoy, 1992; Heywood and Watson, 1995; Eldredge, 2000; Mooney and Hobbs, 2000; Novacek, 2001a, 2007; Wilson, 2002) have addressed this problem. By the late 1990s, biodiversity became the subject of elementary, secondary, and college courses, public journalism, television specials, and major museum exhibits. If biodiversity was still not a commonly recognized word, a broader public at least seemed to be getting the message that precious natural habitats and their species were under intense siege. In addition, scientific institutions, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and other groups pushed for more science and more effective policy to improve our stewardship of biodiversity under threat. Some governments reacted by adopting laws, regulations, and programs that limited overharvesting of both marine (Safina et al., 2005; Stokstad, 2006) and terrestrial (Blanc et al., 2003) species, controlled selected invasive species (Normile, 2004), and secured protection for selected natural habitats (Foley et al., 2005; Revkin, 2008).
Given all this enlightenment, commitment, and effort, it is sobering to reflect, nearly 20 years later, on the continued deterioration of the situation. Despite impassioned pleas and elaborate strategies for conserving rain forests, the rate of loss has hardly abated. Brazil, which holds «62% of all Amazonian rain forest, lost on average «18,100 km2/yr between 1988 and 2006 but registered a loss of 27,400 km2/yr in 2004. Brazilian deforestation rates decreased by 2006 to «14,000 km2/yr, but this trend could be temporary, because falling prices of soya and the increased strength of Brazilian currency and government intervention contributed to the decrease (Malhi et al., 2008). Africa, with a significantly smaller amount of forest cover, lost an amount of forest comparable to that for South America for the same time period (Mygatt, 2006). Other regions of the world, notably Southeast Asia, are recording similarly serious losses (Sterling et al., 2006; United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, 2006). The situation for many freshwater habitats in both temperate and subtropical areas is, if anything, worse (Dudgeon et al., 2005; International Union for the Conservation of Nature, 2007). Marine ecosystems have likewise suffered from devastating reductions in fisheries (Crutzen, 2002) and the degradation of >50% for most coral reef systems (Pandolfi et al., 2005). At the same time, there is even less investment in study and conservation of marine habitats than in terrestrial ones (Hendriks et al., 2007).
The obvious question, then, is why has a massive, international effort to deal with the biodiversity crisis failed to launch? Much of the current stasis is ascribed to the antagonism of corporate interests and lack of vision, and even resistance, of leaders and governments (Biodiversity Project, 2002; Shellenberger and Nordhaus, 2007). Accepting these as factors does not, however, obviate the need for broader and deeper public understanding. The ''power of the people'' is well demonstrated as the primary force behind new, more enlightened, measures by governments and corporations. Conversely, if a lack of public understanding or concern persists, it is highly unlikely that either governments or businesses will change course.
So, what can we now do to improve the situation? Scientists are obviously a critical part of any effort, because they continually improve the database for both species diversity and loss and thereby provide an ever clearer picture of the scientific realities of the biodiversity crisis. However, given the urgent and serious nature of biodiversity degradation, scientists also must have a voice in a dialogue that fosters broad public interest, commitment, and engagement. Here, I further probe the current state of public awareness of the biodiversity crisis, describe the challenges to achieving broad-based effective engagement on the issue, and offer further suggestions for dealing with these challenges.
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