Saturday, 2 March 2013

Biodiversity is basic

Biodiversity sampleBiodiversity is not just nice to have around and its about much more than just the variety of species. It’s about the genetic variety within species, the range of all species, the interrelationships between species and between those species and their habitat(s) and the variety of habitats and ecosystems themselves. Let’s not forget that human beings are included in this of course and that the living world is also tightly coupled to and dependent on the non-living ie water, rocks, air and so on. In short biodiversity is nature as a whole - and it’s the source of our resources and the basis of our lives - see the biodiversity sample in the image top left.

The level of biodiversity is a key measure of how sustainable human society is - and should feature at least as much as carbon emissions as an indicator. If biodiversity is optimally high then we are much more likely to have: protected natural assets; kept ecosystems healthy; retained regenerative capacity; maintained the ability to deliver goods and services; kept wastes and pollutants below environmental capacity for safe processing. We need biodiversity - in fact we can’t live without it! Basic life support systems - those that process our water, soil and air - require varied forms of life, so this alone makes biodiversity essential.

Here’s a list of just some of the direct uses humans make of biodiversity: food such as wheat, rice, potatoes, vegetables, meats and the other stuff we eat; construction materials like wood and bamboo from plants; cotton, paper, linen, and wool from fibre producing plants and animals; renewable fuels, like birch logs or coppiced willow; latex from rubber trees to make tyres and condoms; ornamental plants for our gardens; tropical fish as pets; large natural/semi-natural areas for eco-tourism; many species used as biological pest control for our crops eg ladybirds; reed beds that clean up sewage-contaminated water; many pharmaceuticals, now synthesised, but originating in natural products eg aspirin from willows and penicillin from fungi...[pictured below].

Biodiversity usefulness

There's only so much of our planet to go around and so as human population growth has accelerated and as human consumption has increased - and intensified per person especially in the rich world - so biodiversity has declined. Its estimated that there are 1.4 to 1.7 million living species that we have named and described and that there may be as many as 10 or even 100 million species in total - and we are responsible for an accelerated rate of extinction, very likely including species we did not even know existed.

We hunt species directly - for food or medicine or sport - cutting numbers and sometimes wiping out, as with the dodo, or nearly wiping out species, as with the blue whale. We take large areas of land, wiping out habitats and ecosystems eg by deforestation, wetland create farmland, mine resources, build roads, airports, towns and cities...We dig and drill into the ground and under the sea to extract resources, like coal, oil and gas, that have taken millions of years to form. We very rapidly consume the resources we've extracted and emit our waste and pollution into the air, oceans and onto land.

We grow our economies as fast as we can - that's how we measure our progress, by a measure of money flow, the increase in gross domestic product (GDP) or gross national product (GNP). GDP/GNP treats loss of biodiversity and loss of ecosystems and the services provided as if a benefit not a cost eg the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico or the Exxon Valdez disaster or all the other oil spills are counted not as a cost but as a benefit - yet we are in truth impoverished by it as we diminish the basis of our wealth. GDP as an indicator has gross deficiencies. We need new kind of economics with broader based goals.

Bristol's rare plants and animals

Biodiversity should be valued for reasons of: ethics; aesthetics; ecology; education; recreation; economics; and the resilience that comes from diversity in systems. I want biodiversity conserved because it exists, because I like it - and because we all depend on it. Forms of life are beautiful and diversity itself is beautiful (see the image above of some the rare plants and animals found in my city, Bristol, including the: Bristol Onion; Greater Horseshoe Bat; Bristol Rock Cress; Lesser Horseshoe Bat; Bristol Whitebeam; Short Eared Owl; Wilmott's Whitebeam; Peregrine Falcon). It is morally right to protect species. The complex web of interactions in nature is harmed if we don’t conserve species and we need the interactions. Nature is the source of the resources and services we use to build our economy and so biodiversity is vital to meet our needs, trade, do business and make a profit (depending on how you want to define economics). The variety of life is of very important educational value and is a source of inspiration, leisure and recreation. It is very important for both our physical, social and mental health and wellbeing . A diminishing gene pool is damaging, dangerous and impoverishing.

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