What is ‘biodiversity’ and why does it matter?
Biodiversity, according to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, is the “variability among living organisms… and the ecological complexes of which they are part; this includes diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems”. Basically, the more variety there is in any given ecosystem – whether on the scale of your backyard to the entire European landmass – the more biodiverse it is. The concept of variety applies not only to species, but to different kinds of the same species (for example, see this list of types of pumpkin) and to entire ecosystems (e.g. marine, jungle, wetland, temperate rainforest).
Biodiversity matters in a huge number of ways, including in terms of environmental health. Biodiversity improves ecosystem resilience by allowing them to adapt more easily and to recover from external stresses such as climate change. For example, in 2006 a researcher named David Bellwood (cited in Mission 2015: Biodiversity) fenced off an area of the Great Barrier Reef to prevent fish and other marine animals from interacting with the coral. The point was to determine what the effect of overfishing to the point of extinction (or, presumably, some other process with the same effect) would be on the reef. In the absence of other marine life the reef quickly became overgrown with algae, and the study indicated that it would eventually have died. When the fences were removed the bat fish – a fish normally considered by scientists to be insignificant in the reef environment – played a key role in allowing the fenced area to undergo a rapid recovery.
This experiment demonstrates a number things: first, that biodiversity is fundamental to maintaining the health of all the organisms in an ecosystem – Bellwood’s study showed that the coral would simply not be able to survive if it weren’t part of an adequately diverse environment. Secondly, the role of the bat fish in restoring the coral to its previous vitality reminds us that each organism performs an important function in its environment, even if we humans haven’t yet discovered what that function is. The loss of species or varieties that we might naïvely consider unimportant could have devastating consequences on the broader ecosystem that might not become apparent until too late – the invisible canary in the coral coalmine. Finally, the way the ecosystem recovered when the fences were removed demonstrates how critical a diverse biosphere is in enabling an ecosystem to bounce back from stress.
If you understand things better in monetary terms then it is possible to quantify, to some extent, the value of ecosystem biodiversity. At least 40% of the global economy, as well as 80% of the needs of the poor are derived from biological resources, according to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. Biodiversity creates jobs (in agriculture, in food, in tourism and in science, to name just a few) regulates our environment (for example, trees turn carbon dioxide into oxygen, and wetlands can purify water), and produces goods and services (sometimes referred to as ‘ecosystem services’) which were estimated to be worth around USD124.8 trillion per year in 2014. In comparison, the global GDP in 2011 was around half that figure – USD75.2 trillion.
Biodiversity has a health and medical value, too. 25% of western pharmaceutical medicines are derived from the Amazon, despite the fact that only 1% of Amazonian trees have been scientifically tested for their medical potential. More broadly, only around 2 million out of an estimated 13 million species around the globe have been ‘officially’ identified by humans. Diversity in the source of our food is also crucial to maintaining good health and reducing the need for pharmaceutical cures, but (to stop this article getting completely out of hand and unreadably long), agricultural biodiversity is something I will dig over in more detail another day. There is even evidence that simply being out in the natural environment is good for our psychological and perhaps even physical health. For example, going for a walk in a natural environment is far better at reducing the incidence of ‘rumination’ – those dark, repetitive thoughts which those of us who suffer from anxiety are all too familiar with.
Finally, though certainly not least importantly, biodiversity matters for ethical and cultural reasons. From an ecocentric perspective, biodiverse ecosystems are inherently important; that is, they have value in and of themselves.* Culturally and spiritually, biodiversity’s importance is evident in the fundamental role of nature in the foundational myths and symbolism of almost every culture around the world, both ancient and modern. On a social level, biodiverse ecosystems support the livelihoods of many millions of people, are the cornerstone of many indigenous cultures, and provide the backdrop and the subject of traditional and modern social activities.
Mass extinction, or: humans are the 11th plague
The problem is that we are losing biodiversity on a global scale and at an unprecedented rate. There is a concept known as the planetary boundaries, which essentially argues that when our planetary systems remain within certain boundaries, they are able to operate in the stable way which has allowed human life to flourish over the past ten or so millennia. However, when these biophysical limits are crossed, we risk the fundamental alteration of the system. Out of the nine planetary boundaries identified, four have been exceeded as a result of human activity. One of the two most dramatically surpassed is genetic biodiversity.
Extinction is, of course, a natural occurrence. Ecosystems are dynamic and constantly evolving, responding and adapting to natural changes in the environment. Some species ‘win’ this roll of the dice (for a time), and some lose. The current rate of extinction, though, is so far removed from the natural ‘background’ rate of extinction that it’s hardly fair to even consider it as the same phenomenon. Estimates of the current rate of extinction range from the fairly conservative 100 times to the throat-constricting 10,000 times faster than the natural rate. When you consider how many species may be going extinct that we haven’t even had the chance to document yet, a number somewhere at the higher end of the scale is likely.
There have been five other mass extinctions in the history of our planet. The most well-known, of course, took place around 65 million years ago, and is most famous for ending the reign of the dinosaurs. The present mass extinction, though, can’t be blamed on an asteroid strike; it is primarily caused by humans. The multiplicity of interrelated changes we have wrought to our little blue and green home – air pollution; ocean acidification; the contamination of terrestrial water; overhunting and overfishing; the introduction of invasive species; the many facets of industrial agriculture; and, let’s not forget, climate change, to name but a few – have been so devastating as to cause the sixth mass extinction.
And for all the reasons biodiversity is a good thing, its loss is harmful in equal measure. For instance, with the loss of biodiversity we have lost an estimated USD20.2 trillion in annual ecosystem services since 1997. Similarly, a less biodiverse world will be less resilient to the inevitable stresses that climate change will bring and is already bringing.
Why aren’t more people paying attention, if it’s that bad?
The problem is, of course, that we humans don’t notice the dramatic changes going on around us. This probably happens for a number of reasons, but it is partly because of a social psychological phenomenon known as shifting baseline syndrome. Shifting baseline syndrome effectively means that when we study something (for instance, ecosystem biodiversity) we tend to compare current conditions with those present when we began our research, or sometimes even as far back as when we were children. The result is that the ‘baseline’ comparator for each generation of researchers and communities shifts further and further away from the actual original state of the object of study.
In terms of ecosystems, at least, it is practically impossible to gain a true baseline with which to compare present conditions because this would require time-travel, something I’m reasonably confident hasn’t yet been successfully achieved outside of the world of fiction (some excellent, some – not so much). In his book Feral, George Monbiot tells stories about the incredible bounty of nature: shoals of herring up to 40 square kilometres in size; 850-pound tuna being landed off the coast of Britain; fantastical megafauna, like the eight-foot beaver which used to live in South America, on every continent. He argues that these stories show the way we humans have been having a significant impact on the ecosystems in which we live for much longer than most people realise. Shifting baseline syndrome might also be able to partly explain why so many ecological conservation efforts around the world aren’t working – because they are founded on a flawed and dramatically depleted idea of what the ‘natural’ state of the ecosystem is.
The other reason, I think, that people aren’t paying attention to biodiversity, is because we have forgotten how to value nature. We have forgotten the stories that tell us why it’s important. Stories and legends about the majesty of wild animals are not only awe-inspiring, they teach us to honour our fellow creatures as equal members of an ecosystem; rituals and traditions that guide the processes of hunting, fishing, harvesting, rearing and slaughtering are not just superstition and old wives’ tales – they teach us respect for the systems we are part of and remind us of our place in maintaining the equilibrium. We have forgotten the feeling of being lost in the wilderness and the glorious festival of wonder to be found outside our front doors, the world vibrating with the simple, transcendental joy of existence.
What can we do about it?
Individually, the same kinds of actions I advocate in relation to agricultural sustainability and climate change are relevant here. Consumer choice is one of the most powerful weapons in our arsenals. For instance, I don’t buy products containing palm oil (the only exception would be, of course, if it were certified as sustainable by a body I had researched and trusted, etc.), because unethically sourced palm oil contributes directly to the destruction of equatorial rainforest ecosystems. I don’t spray my garden with pesticides, especially not those containing neonicotinoids, because these have been scientifically demonstrated to be a primary factor in colony collapse disorder and the decimation of the global bee population. We can get involved in ecological restoration efforts near our homes. We can make personal choices that protect, rather than harm the environment. Walk rather than drive; choose the unpackaged option, or the organic option. These choices will contribute to a healthier environment, which in turn will help to slow the destruction of precious species around the world.
Collectively, there is even more we can do. We can support initiatives which put pressure on our governments to live up to our expectations. We can join or support groups like Forest and Bird, who do important work on biodiversity (among other things) in New Zealand. We can vote, and get involved in politics instead of succumbing to apathy and giving up. Care. Learn. Act.
Is there any reason to have hope?
I won’t pretend that everything is milk and honey and it’s all going to be okay. Honestly – things look grim. But there are small changes that give me hope. There are people talking about this, and writing about it, and working hard to make sure that we step back from the brink. The fact that the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services exists at all gives me hope. So do some of the attempts at rewilding (which, by the way, is a related and fascinating topic, should you be interested) in parts of Europe. And, if worst comes to worst and everything falls apart, there’s always the seed vault in Svalbard… We have to keep trying and doing our best and fighting for change, because if we miss the boat on this one, there won’t be any going back.
* An ecocentric value system places the interests of all of nature and ecosystems at the centre, while an anthropocentric one sees nature as subservient to human interests.