Biodiversity and Conservation


E. O. Wilson defines biodiversity as "the totality of all variation in life forms" and says it is studied in three levels - ecosystems, species, and genes.1 Since biodiversity is already being seriously affected by climate change, it is important for us to first bask in the glory of biodiversity before shuddering at the damage being done to it.

Flora and fauna statistics
Around 1.4 million species have been discovered, although it is impossible to know the total number of species on our planet - likely somewhere between ten and one hundred million.2 New species are found at the rate of about 15,000 a year, although some of those being discovered and named are found to already have been categorised elsewhere. Most of the new species being found are invertebrates, mainly insects.3 Thinking smaller, there are around 6000 species of bacteria that we know of, although it is well recognised that we do not know most bacterial species yet. This is a very important matter, since our very lives depend on bacteria.4

Why is the maintenance of biodiversity important?
From a scientific perspective, there are a number of very good reasons to protect biodiversity. The first is simply scientific curiosity, or wonder, at unique creations. The second is functionality - plants can be used as medicines, for example, so the wider the diversity of plants, the more likelihood there is of creating differing medicines. "In the United States a quarter of all prescriptions dispensed by pharmacies are substances extracted from plants."5 As Thomas Lovejoy says, "if you look at the history of medicine, a large part of it is based on fairly frequent serendipitous discoveries of how biological systems work in other species, which then can be applied to our own well-being. And so in one sense, beyond the ecosystem services and all the goods that we can get from the natural world, it's really a living library, and it's just ridiculous to burn the books."6

The third reason, however, is perhaps the most important for maintaining biodiversity. Life on our planet has thrived in all the differing niches afforded it, and the removal of various forms of life by necessity will lead to a weakening of surrounding systems to adapt to change.7 A reduced ability to adapt to change - known as stress - means that environmental crises increase whenever biodiversity is threatened or removed.8 Where there are environmental crises, we inevitably threaten our own existence in those areas, since not only do we know that as biodiversity is reduced, so too are the services provided by the affected areas, but we know that we still don't know enough about the interconnectedness of nature and how it supports us. Wiping out a species in the Amazonian rainforest could have catastrophic connotations for us without us even realising.9 This might sound like scare-mongering, but we have to remember that we punched a hole in the ozone layer without realising we were doing it, we brought about global warming without realising we were doing it, so it's not unthinkable that we could wipe out a key species without realising we had even done it. As E. O. Wilson says, "The loss of a keystone species is like a drill accidentally striking a powerline. It causes lights to go out all over."10 Our problem is that we don't even know where the main powerlines are!

The most obvious impact of crises is that they affect the food chain, as David Attenborough notes - "take the frogs in Panama, for example. Their disappearance can have great consequences for the various creatures that feed upon them or the creatures that they themselves feed on. If they go, the insects proliferate. What happens then? Do some of those insects carry diseases? Every time you change the balance or, worse, eliminate a species, you risk ecological catastrophe."11 The elimination of one species, while tragic, can be compensated for by the natural environment. However, when a large number of species are eliminated, the local system deteriorates - nutrients do not get passed down the food chain, specialist species fail to fulfil their natural tasks, the number of herbivores declines and as a result the number of predators who feed on them declines.12

The food chain is the most obvious impact of climate change negatively affecting biodiversity, but pollination is another. At the moment, many people are talking about the disappearance of bees. While we all know the pain of a bee sting and sometimes may wish for them to die out, bees pollinate over 90 different crops, and unless a cause for their disappearance is identified and rectified soon, a number of voices are expressing concern over the ability to feed the human race with our current palate.

Biodiversity in food is also important. It used to be that on British tables we would have many different varieties of tomato - whereas now we have lost the vocabulary to describe them. We have that variety with apples, for example - Cox, Granny Smith, Braeburn, etc. - yet the general public has lost it with tomatoes.13 If we do not maintain the diversity of our crops, then we will continue to find ourselves with fewer and fewer varieties of food. "Though we're now offered star-fruit and guava at every turn, green commentators often lament the loss - in many cases permanently - of the literally thousands of varieties of apples, potatoes, squashes and other produce which once flourished in Britain. As Andrew Kimbrell wrote in The Ecologist, "monoculture industrial agriculture not only limits what we can eat today, it also reduced the choices of future generations... the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that more than three quarters of agricultural genetic diversity was lost in this past century."14

While this is obviously a significantly smaller reason than the ecological stress mentioned above, it is the reason that often draws home to people how biodiversity affects our everyday lives.

It is diversity within the biological sphere that helps life continue in so many different circumstances. When that diversity is eroded about natural levels, ecological stress ensues and the natural world becomes less resilient to change.15 The maintenance of biodiversity is therefore the maintenance of nature and life itself.

James Lovelock famously created the mindset of Gaia as the Earth's living self-regulating system - "Gaia is the name given to the great self-regulating system that has kept the Earth habitable, and Gaia theory sees life evolving not alone but tightly coupled with the air, the oceans and the surface rocks."16 For Lovelock, the goal of Gaia is "to keep the planet habitable for whatever life forms happen to be in its contemporary biosphere."17 The importance of this view, which is at least guiding many scientific perspectives on biodiversity, is that it suggests that all life is interconnected. Biodiversity is therefore something from which the human race can never be separate - we are part of biodiversity, and our actions affect all biodiversity. It is only by acknowledging that we are an intricate part of the system that we can heal the system. It is therefore encouraging that in 2001, a wide-ranging group of scientists gathered to deliver the Amsterdam Declaration on Global Change which included that statement that "the Earth system behaves as a single, self-regulating system comprised of physical, chemical, biological and human components."

1. Planet Earth, The Future (2006), p. 27
2. E. O. Wilson (1992), p. 346
3. Robert May, Planet Earth (2006), p. 18
4. E. O. Wilson, Planet Earth (2006), p. 19
5. E. O. Wilson (1992), p. 283, 285
6. Thomas Lovejoy, Planet Earth (2006), p. 39: See also Tony Juniper, Planet Earth (2006), p. 40
7. Richard Mabey, Plant Earth (2006), p. 28-9
8. E. O. Wilson, Planet Earth (2006), p. 29
9. E. O. Wilson (1992), p. 347-8
10. E. O. Wilson (1992), p. 348
11. David Attentborough, Planet Earth (2006), p. 30
12. E. O. Wilson (1992), p. 14
13. It should be noted that this is not just the result of climate change but also of the globalised market.
14. Clark (2006), p. 195-6
15. E. O. Wilson (1992), p. 14
16. James Lovelock, Planet Earth (2006), p. 86
17. James Lovelock, Planet Earth (2006), p. 131