We know that the loss of biodiversity significantly impacts our ecosystems and is happening at an alarming rate. But sometimes the true cost of biodiversity loss is hard to grasp until we increase our sensitivity to the impacts. The loss of a plant or animal species is complicated, possibly invisible, and sometimes hard to quantify, much like coming to grips with our spiritual nature.
But just because these losses are difficult to see doesn’t mean they don’t exist. (We can look at the impact of the current Covid-19 pandemic as proof. We can’t readily see the virus, but we know it’s real because we feel the effects, physical, emotional, and financial.)
Let’s look at these concepts from a science standpoint. Invasive insect species can be significant drivers of biodiversity loss. The emerald ash borer (Agrilus planipennis) (EAB) is wreaking havoc on our domestic ash trees. The Forestry Service states that this beetle has destroyed tens of millions of true ash species in over 25 states. Millions more will be lost in the coming years. “Many leading EAB researchers speculate that it has the potential to "functionally" wipe out the ash species with devastating economic and ecological impacts.”
This beetle is native to northeastern Asia. The female beetle lays eggs under the ash bark that hatch into larva, which feed on the plant tissues, interfering with plant growth. Nobody knows exactly how they arrived, although it was likely associated packing supplies in trade from China. In fact, to the untrained eye they are hard to spot. Newly infested trees exhibit few, if any, external symptoms. Since the EAB has escaped its native territory (and its natural predators), however, its populations have exploded in the United States. Our US ash tree populations have been decimated as a result.
The impact of the loss of ash trees may be difficult to understand at first glance.
Ash trees are important to ecosystems and to people. Many animal or bird species native to the United States rely on ash, whether it be for nesting sites, shelter, or food by feeding on its buds and samaras (seeds). Several species of ash have adapted specifically to wetlands and are important to the species in those particular habitats. States such as Nebraska benefit from ash trees as windbreaks, which help prevent soil erosion. Humans have also enjoyed ash species for their beautiful fall foliage displays or simply as shade trees. Its wood has a distinct light brown and off-white color. Ash wood stains well and is extremely solid. It’s often used for food containers because it doesn’t change the taste. Ash has long been used for furniture, baseball bats, hockey sticks, and more.
Indigenous peoples have used white ash (Fraxinus americana L.) for its medicinal purposes for thousands of years. The leaves would be used to create a laxative or a general tonic for women after childbirth; seeds could be used as an aphrodisiac or a diuretic, or as a cure for fevers; juice from the leaves were applied to mosquito bites to help with itching. We haven’t yet fully investigated the medicinal value of ash trees. The loss of ash trees is wide-ranging, and affects people, animals, and overall ecosystems in a myriad of ways.
Let’s look at elephants. Their loss also impacts us in ways we might not consider. Elephants are a "keystone species” that have a disproportionately large impact on the landscape.
Elephants push over trees, but by doing so they also disperse seeds over large distances. With their massive bulk, they trample grasslands, thus allowing smaller species to thrive. They create waterholes that benefit other animals, particularly during periods of drought. The reduction in the overall elephant population can have long-term, unanticipated ecosystem impacts.
We don’t know all of the species or varieties that exist on this planet, and we certainly don’t know the impact that the proliferation or loss of any one of them may have. Our recognition that we are not all-knowing, or omniscient, should humble us. Perhaps we should approach the natural world with more of a sense of humility. Although we’re not all-knowing, the creator God is. And in His omniscience, He created us with a sense of love and awe of the natural world.
He also commanded us to steward it responsibly, with all that the word implies. We may not understand the complete reason for that command. But He does.
Sometimes it’s hard to see the unintended impact of things, just as it may be hard to see something on a spiritual level. That’s why we should look at the impacts of things, both good and bad, so that we can sharpen our understanding. It’s that way with faith, isn’t it? We often feel more connected to God when we physically experience the richness of the natural world. Walking through a forest of towering redwoods speaks to us a spiritual level, just as observing the incredible complexity of a virus under a microscope can leave us in disbelief. The natural world connects us to our Creator in ways that are identifiable. It feels real.
The opposite might also be true. We feel disconnected from God when we’re far from Him. We may have distanced ourselves from his Word, or from our traditions and practices.
Similarly, biodiversity loss feels real when we intentionally think about its impact on people, ecosystems, and the rest of the natural world. We’ll feel its absence when we pay attention. When we’re connected.
Perhaps also when we practice humility.
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