BIODIVERSITY MATTERS: The Spice of Life!
Updated: Apr 21, 2020
We’re reaching the end of the United Nation’s “Decade of Biodiversity,” and yet, many of us aren’t sure what that term even means. Or why it matters.
But matter it does.
In fact, it’s vital to our continued survival and the health of this planet.
So, what is biodiversity anyway?
Biological diversity (or "biodiversity") refers to the variety and variability of plant and animal life on this planet. We can think of biodiversity on three levels: genetic diversity within a plant or animal species, variability within the species itself, and the diversity that exists in our ecosystems.
Let’s look at biodiversity with a metaphor. We have all kinds of spices in our kitchen -- oregano, thyme, and basil -- and they all come together in the perfect blend to make extraordinary dishes. Without them the meal would lack zest. What if you had only one choice at the grocery store? Canned corn would get old, real fast. And so would your failing health. Well-balanced and diverse diets are essential for your physical, mental, and emotional health. Variety is not only the spice of life, as the saying goes, but it’s essential for life.
Biodiversity in the ecological realm is no different. It is necessary for us to maintain biodiversity in the natural world so that we can sustain a healthy ecological balance for all living things. Each species has its place, and each has evolved over years of natural selection. If one species is removed, there is generally a ripple effect on a larger ecological scale. Both locally and globally.
Let’s take a look at just a few of the benefits.
⁕ Good health depends upon a functioning and biodiverse ecosystem
Do you need clean air or water? Nutrient dense food? Then biodiversity is critical. Forests offer a perfect example. Biodiversity within a forest refers to all of the varieties of trees, plants, insects, birds, animals, fungi, and microorganisms that make up the forest. These species form integrated networks that are interwoven, each species relying heavily on the other. The solitary Sumatran rhinoceros (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) (the most endangered rhinoceros species) lives in dense tropical forests with only one surviving population left in Indonesia. They have a varied diet that consists of over a hundred different plant species. Similarly, humans also depend upon forests. Some estimates say that 1.6 billion people rely upon them for their livelihoods. Indeed, three hundred million people worldwide live in forests.
Many animals also rely on forests. Eighty percent of the world's terrestrial biodiversity, including land-based species such as elephants and rhinos, live in forests.
A thriving forest – one rich in biodiversity – is also essential because it assists in purifying air and water, and soil. All plants will accumulate minerals and nutrients, but some can even accumulate toxins from the soil, water and air. Ailanthus (tree of heaven), although locally non-native, was planted ornamentally, and later found to be removing pollutants from the air. It has been discovered that brake fern (Pteris vittata) can remove arsenic from the soil and concentrate them in their fronds. There are studies also showing that aquatic algae accumulate metals like cadmium from the sediment and move them into their aboveground tissues. Bernadette has studied that process, and published her findings here.
Forests play a critical role in lessening the effects of climate change. Like the peat bogs, discussed below, they act as a “carbon sink.” They soak up carbon dioxide that would otherwise be free in the atmosphere and exacerbate changes in climate patterns. Forests provide timber for shelter, wood for fires, and various products for trade or commerce. Let’s not forget that they are amazing places in which to hike, think, or get lost.
⁕ Biodiverse ecosystems help reduce poverty.
Biodiverse ecosystems not only provide a varied diet for people (and animals), which is healthier and fuels people for work, but they also offer long-term food resources. In a biodiverse ecosystem, we’re able to access proteins and fibers, both of which are essential to our ability to function.
⁕ Biodiverse ecosystems offer benefits that we haven’t yet discovered.
There’s value in biodiversity because we’re just starting to understand the potential lifesaving properties of certain plants or animals. They have value, both commercially and scientifically, that we haven’t even begun to understand. We don’t even know how many species exist on this earth. There are approximately 1.2 million or so known living species. Some 15,000-20,000 are added to the list every year (“Our results suggest that some 86% of the species on Earth, and 91% in the ocean, still await description.”) Of the ones we do know, we are just learning about some of their benefits. Who knew, for example, that intact peat bogs in Ireland (wetlands) capture carbon and help reduce ozone depletion? By failing to protect the diversity of marine environments, tropical rainforests, or wetlands, we may unwittingly destroy future cures, treatments, or solutions for disease or other problems we face as humans.
⁕ Biodiversity ecosystems can stem the spread of infectious disease. There’s a connection between biodiversity and disease that we’re just starting to understand. Recent scientific theories hypothesize that changes to global or local ecosystems potentially enhance infectious disease transmission (and possibly spur the emergence of new infectious diseases). Why does biodiversity help slow the spread of existing diseases? One reason is because certain species in an ecosystem might be better than others at buffering disease transmission. Not all animals have the same rates of reproduction, and thus their immune systems operate differently. The ones that reproduce faster may carry disease more widely. We want variety, and it appears to give us the best chance to slow the spread of infectious disease.
⁕ Biodiverse ecosystems are good for the soul.
There’s a mutually beneficial relationship between biodiversity and spiritual and mental health. Many of us are calmed by the crash of ocean waves at the beach. We marvel at the strength of old-growth forests, or the rich variety of color in a meadow in full bloom. These sights make us feel lighter, more connected to our soul, maybe even our Creator. These are beautiful things, and beautiful things satisfy on a level that can’t be replicated artificially. There’s a reason that the Bible encourages us to meditate on “…whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely….” Phil. 4:8.
⁕ Biodiverse ecosystems are good for the economy.
Biodiversity has economic value, too. People enjoy bird watching or seeking out one of the world’s approximately 9,800 bird species. Our fascination with catching the behaviors of little insect-eating warblers, hovering kestrels, or the quirky mating rituals of tropical manakin birds, has led to $41 billion dollars spent on bird watching alone each year, and about 20 million Americans take bird-specific trips each year for that purpose. Ecotourism in general has exploded to a multibillion dollar industry because we enjoy fishing, hiking, hunting, or simply getting spending time in nature.
Biodiversity plays a key role in keeping us and the rest of the natural world healthy. As we’ll explore in future posts, however, our planet’s biodiversity is in grave danger (More on that throughout this blog). That means we’re in danger.
Corporate America is already getting on board. Businesses such as Johnson & Johnson and Chevron are considering the impact of biodiversity in their financial planning and business models. You can find Johnson & Johnson’s Biodiversity Statement here. Or Chevron’s here.
Biodiversity is being discussed in legal and political circles as well. United States conservation laws are increasingly factoring in wider ecosystem impacts, and not just the number of a specific species or trade regulations. On an international level, there’s a convention, or agreement, known as the United Nations Convention on Biodiversity. To date, 196 countries are signatories.
That leaves us.
Perhaps we can start thinking differently. Let’s recognize and appreciate that biodiversity matters – indeed, all living things are interconnected. We need each other. Let’s acknowledge that, more than the rest of the natural world, we alone can rationally appreciate the benefits of biodiversity and then use our ability to act or preserve it through science and law. We can attempt to strengthen existing legal frameworks. We can make business and personal environmental ethics a part of everyday conversations and decisionmaking. We can explore new commercial avenues to protect endangered species, genetic diversity, and ecosystems worldwide. We can.
Because biodiversity matters.
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