May 22 is recognized as International Day for Biological Diversity. Areas or ecosystems with high biodiversity have a wide variety of species present, across multiple groups, such as trees, wildflowers, birds and mammals. Undisturbed natural areas typically have high biodiversity, while those modified by humans tend to have much lower biodiversity. You may have seen biodiversity in the headlines recently, as the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, (IPBES) a U.N. panel charged with studying the biodiversity and ecosystem literature, just released its report. This report, which is the largest review of its kind, found that more than one million species are threatened with extinction, and that the rate of species extinction is accelerating. Tied to this finding is the evidence that the global rate of decline in nature is happening faster than has ever been recorded in human history. A summary of the report can be found here.
The authors warn that this is not just an academic concern – humans will suffer due to these impending extinctions. As ecologists Paul and Anne Ehrlich have said, ecosystems, much like an airplane wing, have a certain amount of redundancy built in. You may be able to pop off individual rivets, and the plane will continue to fly. But if you pop off enough rivets, or remove the wrong ones, the system fails and the plane will crash. This report is an important reminder that biodiversity is important not only because plants and animals are beautiful and fascinating, but also because, as part of ecosystems, they make up the life support system that humans as a civilization, and as a species, depend on.
We inhabit a thin sliver of warm, wet, oxygenated air between the solid rock of the Earth and the empty void of space. The life support system that sustains this thin green sliver is a fantastically complex machine, made up of individual living species, each carrying out specific functions and regulating other pieces of the machinery. These species produce our oxygen, clean our water and pollinate our crops. Every species that is lost is another rivet popped off of the airplane we are all currently passengers on, with no backup plan. Maybe one day the science will be clear enough to tell us whether a specific species of mouse or beetle or tiger is redundant or crucial to ecosystem function, but we are far away from that day. Right now the only sane course of action is to keep as many rivets intact as possible.
The report is not all doom and gloom, however. The authors of the report conclude that it is not too late to change our path. But we have to start now, and the change has to be transformative, or what the authors call “a fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic, and social factors.”
There are a variety of things we can all do. We can try to consume less. Recycling is great, but first concentrate on reduce and reuse. Resist the temptation to buy things you don’t really need and reuse things as much as possible. We can eat less meat. Meat is extremely inefficient in terms of land and water use, as well as greenhouse gas production. Make an effort to replace some of the meat in your diet with other high-protein foods like beans, lentils, peas and nuts. We can grow native plants. Native species provide habitat for wildlife and help support declining pollinators. We can contact our elected representatives. Get in touch with your representatives, at all levels, from local to national, tell them you are a constituent, and that you care about biodiversity and support conservation. Great Parks strives to maintain and create diverse native communities, and a central part of our mission is to preserve and protect natural areas in Hamilton County. You can help us with this mission by volunteering to help with projects like litter cleanup, invasive species removal, and native plantings. And don’t forget to visit natural areas, and take a moment to appreciate biodiversity for its own sake too. All of these things can help preserve biodiversity globally and in our little corner of the world.