ognize that advancing the biodiversity sciences and improving public understanding of it require effective communication between the public and the scientific community. To that end, those four organizations convened the Second National Forum on BiodiversityNature and Human Society: The Quest for a Sustainable Futureon October 27–30, 1997. The 3-day conference was held at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, DC. The papers presented in this volume are based upon presentations made at the conference. The material in this book is not an official report of the Board on Biology or the National Research Council and any opinions expressed are solely those of the individual forum participants.
The second forum provided a venue for the world's leading experts in the biodiversity sciencesranging from agronomy to zoologyto discuss their understanding and future scientific directions. Through the World Wide Web, it engaged the experts in a dialogue with the American public about biodiversity, especially its relevance to humans, our understanding of it, and the challenges that lie ahead. The forum had three goals, as follows:
• Review state-of-the-art science that helps us to understand Earth's biological diversity. The forum accomplished that goal by engaging scientists who work in fields that focus on different aspects of the extent and variability of life on Earth. The activities of the forum provided opportunities for scientists to share new information with each other and the public, to confirm some theories and refute others, to discuss emerging fields that need new information, and to develop strategies to learn more about biodiversity and the proper management of it.
• Engage scientists and nonscientists in a discussion of what science is, how it works, and the issues that scientists should address, including issues of practical importance to the public. That goal was accomplished by holding brownbag lunch sessions on each day of the forum where the speakers were available to discuss general questions posed to them by forum attendees.
• Make the information discussed at the forum accessible to the general public in an understandable way. This proceeding's volume accomplishes that goal. It is derived from the research literature and forum activities, and it explains biodiversity to the general public in lay terms.
Given those goals, what was perhaps most striking about the ideas presented at the forum was the discovery of the convergence that had occurred over the preceding decade between the concept of biodiversity, which used to be taken loosely to mean a roster of species, and the concept of “sustainable development.” It is now widely understood that biodiversity is what makes our planetary home what it is and makes our life here possible; in turn, it is biodiversity that we must use to build our sustainable future. The living systems of Earth are powered by perhaps 350,000 of the estimated 7 million or more species that share the planet with us: the plants, algae, and photosynthetic bacteria that alone have the ability to capture a small portion of the Sun's energy and transform it into chemical bonds, which in turn provide the energy needed for the metabolism of those organisms and indirectly for all others, including humans.