The Case for Biodiversity

Linda Maree

©dwij 2002

Article 5 in our series Future Link
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Linda Maree is a writer, journalist and editor of She has a lifelong interest in environmental issues.

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The Case for Biodiversity

Nature is a living system, so sacred
That those who use it profanely
Will surely lose it;
And to lose nature
Is to lose ourselves.
—Tao 29

Edward O. Wilson, Ph.D., internationally acclaimed Harvard University scientist and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, tells us, in The Diversity of Life, that "Biological diversity is the key to the maintenance of the world as we know it." Recent studies on whole ecosystems, or ecological units, which include the organisms living in a particular environment as well as the actual physical environment that impacts on the organisms, support what many have long suspected: In most cases, the more diversity of species living in an ecosystem, the better able that unit is to withstand environmental stresses. As human beings, we depend on many types of ecosystems for healthy living—for nutritious food, clean water, medicinals, clothing and shelter, even the very air we breathe.

Such is the symbiotic relationship within the Earth environment that while the loss of a single species may or may not have an impact on all other living creatures (dependent on the niche that particular species filled in the ecosystem), the loss of an entire group of species could be devastating. That is the case with insects, which make up more than half of all living organisms. Except for a few that we recognize as beneficial, most humans generally think of insects as pests at worst, or insignificant at best. In fact, Wilson says, "So important are insects and other land-dwelling arthropods that if all were to disappear, humanity probably could not last more than a few months." (Months!) "Most of the amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals would crash to extinction about the same time," with most flowering plants, and forests following soon after. He goes on to describe an Earth with a land surface that literally rots, "closing the channels of the nutrient cycles," and eventually returning the Earth ecosystem to "approximately its condition in early Paleozoic times . . . largely devoid of animal life."

That being said, the Earth as we know it today has been a work-in-progress for many billions of years. In the 3—5 billion years of biological history, species have appeared, flourished, and gone extinct in a natural cycle of growth and evolution that has caused no long-lasting discernible harm to the Earth as a whole. In fact, it is estimated that about 98% of all the species that ever existed on the planet are now extinct. So, one might ask, why care? If extinction is a natural process that is unlikely to cause wide-spread devastation (though this is indeed possible), why worry about a few species disappearing?

Because what we are experiencing today is less of a natural process of growth and more of a human process of unchecked expansion and subsequent destruction. If a species goes extinct because it has lived out its natural cycle of years, that is just part of the normal process of growth and change that the Earth has been engaged in for many billions of years. When a species goes extinct due to human intervention and manipulation of the Earth's natural ecosystems, however, that is not normal, not part of the process, and is more likely to cause a permanent upset in equilibrium. In fact, according to Wilson, of the 5 foremost causes of extinction today—habitat destruction, introduction of nonnative species, pollution, overharvesting, and disease—virtually all are due in some way to human activity.

It is crucial to note that after each of the past great mass extinctions that have occurred in Earth's history, it took between 10 and 100 million years for pre-disaster levels of diversity to be restored—not decades, or even generations, but many millions of years to rebuild the rich ecosystems that the human population has largely taken for granted and sometimes systematically destroyed, mostly for short-term economic gain. It's a sobering thought. While studies suggest that after a catastrophe or natural disaster, ecosystems do indeed recover and eventually come back to a state of equilibrium, the damage that humanity is causing today in just a brief period of time could literally take millions of years to be rectified. It must also be said that in the case of previous mass extinctions, there were no human beings to contend with during the restoration process, and, according to Wilson, recovery from such a catastrophe today would require "returning a large part of the land to its natural state." He goes on to say that "By appropriating or otherwise disturbing 90 percent of the land surface, humanity has already closed most of the theaters of natural evolution." How can we expect the Earth to magically heal itself if its natural habitats have been destroyed or replaced with artificial, man-made environments?

It is a fact that we humans, like every other living species, will have an impact on the environment just by our existence, but that doesn't mean it has to be destructive. We can, in fact, learn to have a good relationship with the earth and be responsible within that relationship. In A God Within, scientist, environmentalist, and Pulitzer prize-winning author Rene Dubos (1901- 1982), states that "True conservation means not only protecting nature against human misbehavior but also developing human activities which favor a creative harmonious relationship between man and nature." Then the question becomes not a matter of growth and development versus nature, but what do we want to grow and develop? And how can that be done within the context of being environmentally responsible, remembering that "human being" is not separate from "environment," but is simply one species among many that make up the Earth's rich, diverse ecosystem? As such, it is imperative to ask ourselves: Do we want to live in a world of devastation, greed, illness, overcrowding, and strife? Or do we want to live in beauty, abundance, prosperity, and good health? And then: What will it take to create the world as envisioned?

Humanity certainly has the capability to design a world that works for, not against, a sustainable environment. As Dubos tells us, "From the Stone Age until the end of the eighteenth century the human race {often} created magnificent civilizations by practices which had little destructive effect on natural resources, but rather commonly renewed these resources or even created new ones." (While it is true that ancient civilizations could sometimes have a disastrously negative effect on their local environments, even leading, at times, to their own demise, because of circumstances including low populations and decreased mobility compared with modern societies they were unlikely to have any discernible effect on the global environment.) Human beings have a wonderful capacity for imagination and ingenuity. Indeed, without this ability, along with the capacity for change, no human society could continue to exist for very long. It is when we actually begin to believe that there really is a problem, and we are at cause and must take responsibility, that we will see we are also part of the solution. When using our accumulated knowledge and creative capabilities to care for the environment and preserve the many species that co-exist with us within this complex, interconnected ecosystem we call Earth is seen as absolutely necessary for the continuation of life as we know it, including the perpetuation of the human species (and is not just a "nice" or "good" thing to do), perhaps we will begin to make significant changes that will positively impact our world. To prevent a future that is bleak at best, human beings will have to rise to the challenge of shifting our perceptions, as well as our behaviors, to overcome the problems that threaten to destroy the very environment in which we exist.

For some, the problem may seem too big and out of reach. They may say to themselves, "Whatever I can do won't make a difference anyway, so why bother?" When we get caught up in a defeatist attitude, nothing seems possible and all seems hopeless. Doom-and-gloom tactics may sometimes galvanize people into action out of fear, but overall this tactic does not necessarily draw support, and is more likely to encourage people to give up out of a sense of hopelessness. What people really need is to see that what they do, however small a contribution it may seem, can make a difference . . . particularly inward shifts of perspective. The Earth is our home; biological life as we know it originated and has flourished here for many millions of years. For this reason, perhaps we, like scientist Edward O. Wilson, need to shift our perspective and see environmentalism, particularly biodiversity, as a moral issue with each species recognized as a "masterpiece of evolution." Given that perspective, we might ask, who are we to so casually destroy even one such extraordinary creation? (Not forgetting that we are one of those creations.)

In fact, given the evidence of the Earth's incredible power for renewal following past natural disasters and even mass global extinctions, it becomes very clear that the Earth does not "need" us; it is we, in fact, who need the Earth—a healthy, growing Earth abundant with life in its many forms. It seems certain that unless we actually blow it up, or otherwise destroy it completely in some grossly destructive and eminently short-sighted way, the Earth will continue to live out its normal life span—however long that may be—and will surely be around long after we, as a species, cease to exist. Throughout the long history of this planet, species have come and gone with regularity, and there is no reason to believe that Homo sapiens will be any different. Species continue to change, evolve, and go extinct. In the end, human beings may be here . . . or not . . . but the Earth will go on.

This world we live in is a direct result of the overall consciousness of humanity, and when we begin to make shifts in consciousness—even minute shifts—it will be reflected in our actions out in the world. If we, as individuals, begin to cultivate a consciousness of respect and dignity for all of creation, we will not be capable of allowing the wanton destruction of natural habitats for purely human gain and at the expense of other creatures, including other human beings. None of us is perfect; and to begin to make a positive impact on our world, we don't have to be. Ultimately, drastic changes in lifestyle may not be necessary, and there is certainly no need to revert to a pre-industrialized world; but we do need to begin to shift our priorities, perspectives, and behaviors in the direction of responsible environmental management. There are right choices to be made to maintain a healthy, sustainable world, but we don't all have to make the right choices all the time. It is important, however, to be aware of the impact of all our decisions and to make the best choices we can given our knowledge, means, and level of commitment.

One might say that when we begin to learn to respect and honor the Earth and all its biodiversity, we are truly learning to respect and honor ourselves. William Arthur Ward says that "When we seek to discover the best in others, we somehow bring out the best in ourselves." "Others," in the broader sense, can mean not only other people, but other entities, other beings, other life forms—the living mass that is our terrestrial home. It means a widening of our scope to see the bigger picture. When we learn to be compassionate with all creation, we develop a level of compassion that is immense and all-encompassing in its depth.

On a more concrete level, the skills that are learned in saving the Florida panther, for example, or the brilliantly-colored poison dart frogs of South and Central America, or a rare orchid or other rainforest plant species, are the very skills we will need to remain a viable species on planet Earth—to save ourselves from extinction. From a Darwinian perspective, it really is about survival of the fittest, but what we need to re-examine, in light of the condition of our world today, is our definition of "fit." Will we go on as a species that is fit to be here? Or will we be eliminated, exterminated by our own actions? The case for biodiversity, then, can be seen as less a call-for-action to save individual species (though this must happen) and more of a global intention to create a world that, at the level of species survival, works for all.

It is important to state once again—the Earth does not need us, and it doesn't need our help to survive. But we need the earth. And we need the lessons that can be learned from helping our fellow inhabitants on the planet—from the most microscopic life forms to the largest—to avoid extinction. The web of life is intricate and we have only begun to minimally understand its wondrous complexity. When we, humanity as a whole, begin to appreciate that the loss of one single strand could lead to the unraveling of the entire web, perhaps we will take notice and begin to make those necessary changes that can lead to a more viable and healthy planet and, by extension, a more viable and healthy human species.

Linda Maree

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The Future Link segment of the Forum brings together an array of scholars and educators who have expertise in two fields of great importance: the physical sciences and metaphysics. In our articles some authors will share with you only from their area of study; in other articles authors will merge both paths in a flowing synchronicity. All paths of exploration are valuable and will give you seeds of insightfulness. Enjoy; we look forward to your comments on our topics.

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