The Importance of Biodiversity

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“Whoa. I’m one of more than 5,000 frog species on Earth? Cool.” 
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Scimitar oryx were hunted to extinction in the wild by humans intending to sell their horns. These oryx live at the San Diego Zoo.

Earth is home to 80,000 species of snails and slugs. About 5,000 species of frogs have been recorded. Ten thousand species of birds decorate the skies. Our planet provides habitats for about 3,000 species of snakes, at least 25,000 different kinds of fish, about 2,300 rodents, and innumerable forms of insects, bacteria, fungi and viruses. I say “innumerable” because, although we’ve named 100,000 types of fungi and documented more than a million species of insects, we’re conscious that we’ve identified only a fraction of the diverse species out there. Experts estimate there are between 2 and 30 million species of insects on Earth. There are so many kinds of insects in so many out-of-the-way places that scientists can only take a wild stab at the range of their diversity.

We have named about 600,000 species of beetles, for heaven’s sake.

A couple of years ago, I discovered a tiny frog I’d never seen before in a wet spot behind my shed. I was thrilled. Last year, my wife and I spotted a merlin, a small species of falcon, hunting around our blackberry patch. I watched it through a telescope from our living room. The discovery made me feel ecstatic.

Sometimes I get a little drunk on natural diversity. A good sort of drunk. I’ve been known to crawl around a pasture on my belly counting plant species. Not for the sake of science — just to know the number. My wife and I like to pick out how many different bird songs we can hear on summer mornings.

Some find my enthusiasm silly, but I have good company in my intoxication. Thomas Jefferson expounded joyously on the sacred multiplicity of creation. So have renowned authors and thinkers such as Aristotle, Pliny the Elder, Thich Nhat Hanh, Terry Tempest Williams, William Wordsworth and many more.

As the floodwaters described in the Old Testament receded, the Judeo-Christian God promised never again to punish the planet, telling Noah, “I am establishing my covenant with you and with your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the Earth with you, as many as came out of the ark.” His covenant was not with humanity alone, but, explicitly, “with every living thing.” Buddhism, Hinduism and many other religions also give specific, divine instruction on the importance of preserving diverse species. Almost everyone, it seems, recognizes the value.

Pulitzer Prize-winning biologist Edward O. Wilson is today’s unofficial high priest of biodiversity. He says we don’t need scientists, politicians, economists or clergy to tell us biodiversity is important. Biodiversity is not just important for technical, scientific reasons — it’s important because it’s the symbol and symptom of a rich, healthy world.

In his book Biodiversity, Wilson says the “inherent wrongness of the destruction of biological diversity” is apparent to “all manner of personal philosophies.” He contends that the sacred value of biodiversity gives conservation “a sound footing outside the slick terrain of the economists and their philosophical allies.”

Wilson argues that we should value biodiversity for its own sake. I think that’s a wonderful idea. I think it may be the best idea I’ve heard in a long time.

If we need some yardstick by which to measure our progress toward real, effective environmental stewardship, then biodiversity should be that yardstick. What better way is there, after all, to value creation than by its diversity? It’s the best score card for the planet’s health.

This planet’s creator obviously values variety. Famous biologist J. B. S. Haldane, when asked whether his scientific studies taught him anything about God, replied that this planet’s architect apparently has “an inordinate fondness for beetles.” Haldane’s offhand remark was satirical and profound at the same time. Based on the evidence, God must be incredibly fond of beetles indeed. And dragonflies. And fungi.

Unfortunately, half of all the plant and animal species that were living on Earth when I was born might be gone in my grandchildren’s lifetimes. Human activities are putting a lot of pressure on biodiversity. The planet hasn’t seen the current rate of extinction since the demise of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. We’re probably losing between 50 and 150 species per day. Extinction is normal, but our current rate of extinction is far from normal. In fact, the current rate is at least 10,000 times greater than the historic average rate of species extinction according to the United Nations Development Programme, an organization dedicated to world development and poverty reduction. This alarming rate of extinction is without a doubt the result of human activities — pollution, deforestation, construction, industrialization. By 2100, if current trends persist, two-thirds of the species that were alive in 1900 will have disappeared.

The whole idea of a species ceasing to exist is difficult to grasp. At the time of the American Revolution, people generally didn’t think it was even possible. An article of faith since Medieval times had been that God’s “Great Chain of Being,” complete with every species that had ever existed, remained intact. Thomas Jefferson didn’t believe in extinction. He believed the idea was heretical. A couple of decades after Jefferson was gone, Alfred Lord Tennyson mourned the new reality of extinction in a poem called “In Memoriam,” where he wishes “That not one life shall be destroy’d, / Or cast as rubbish to the void …”

While this notion that creatures disappear forever isn’t easy to swallow, even more difficult is the realization that humanity may be responsible for sending a lot of those species “to the void.” But the fact that we’re responsible for mass extinctions is becoming more and more obvious. Some scientists are even in favor of announcing the end of the Holocene epoch and naming the current epoch the “Anthropocene,” signaling a period in which humankind is the dominant natural force on the planet. But rather than resisting this recognition, what if we embrace the opportunity? What if we acknowledge that biological diversity is inherently good, and that to diminish it is inherently wrong? Just plain wrong.

If we target global warming or pollution as primary obstacles in our journey toward sustainability, maybe we’re setting our sights too low. Maybe we should, instead, aim our efforts at preserving biological diversity in all of its natural splendor. Pursuing any other goal seems inferior by comparison and not worthy of our vast potential as a species.

Bryan Welch, Publisher and Editorial Director of MOTHER EARTH NEWS, is fascinated by the intricate and interdependent relationships among plants, animals and people. He is the author of Beautiful and Abundant: Building the World We Want.