This article analyses human action and biodiversity. Biodiversity is a strange phenomena. It is the variety and variability of life on Earth.
It is is the variety of life. It is everything, it is all around us and we humans contribute as well as detract from biodiversity. It is difficult to measure. In fact, only a small proportion of the earth’s species have been identified and catalogued to date. As we will see later, this has important ramifications for biodiversity conservation efforts.
In this article, we will look into the causes of biodiversity loss, why biodiversity matters and why biodiversity loss continues.
Causes of biodiversity loss
The natural system is being disturbed by human hands. Whether it is through poverty and desperation in developing countries or through wealth and avarice in developed countries; we are all responsible for biodiversity losses.
Before we jump into the primary drivers I think it is important to touch on the scale of human action on biodiversity losses.
As the charts below show, not only are the biodiversity losses substantial, but they are happening is step with the arrival of humans in ever increasing numbers. The charts were drawn from a paper called Biodiversity losses and conservation responses in the Anthropocene by Johnson, et al. It is a great paper and I recommend that you find and read the original text.
Now we have established the scale of the problem. We can examine the direct causes. These are:
- Overexploitation of resources
- Habitat loss
- Invasive species
- Climate change
Different areas will be affected differently, but these are the primary drivers of biodiversity losses.
To take but one example, habitat loss, a primary driver in this sphere is deforestation and its links to agriculture. Let’s say you have a forest, this is a complex ecosystem, which in the tropics could support thousands of species. If you cut that ecosystem down and replace it with a far more simple arable or pastoral agriculture system, you have increased the carrying capacity to support human needs, but you have dramatically reduced the ability to support biodiversity. What is unescapable is the impact that agriculture has had and is having in accelerating biodiversity losses.
Another aspect that is often overlooked when addressing habitat loss is the impact of degraded ecosystems on biodiversity. Direct habitat loss is a tragedy and we should look to reduce this wherever possible. But what is often the case, is that whilst habitats are lost, what remains is broken up, heavily fragmented and unable to support the same level of biodiversity. This impact of the degraded quality of what remains of our ecosystems is a key issue to address.
Action is needed to address all of the 5 drivers of biodiversity loss. These are ecological problems that are heavily intertwined with economic problems. We need systems thinking so that by solving one problem, issues in other areas are not exacerbated.
Why biodiversity matters
Biodiversity loss matters. The loss of biodiversity presents both economic and moral questions.
Economically, the value of biodiversity is immense. The following industries and sectors are utterly dependent on biodiversity for their present and future success. They are:
- Food crops
- Industrial products
The unexploited wealth that lies within the Earth’s forests and oceans contain vital ingredients. As mentioned before, we have barely scratched the surface when it comes to cataloguing all the species on Earth.
It is possible that with the biodiversity loss already sustained, that vital inputs into pharmaceutical discoveries have been lost, before we ever knew they existed. But instead of focussing on what has been lost, we should see this as an opportunity, to conserve what remains of the productive aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. These will no doubt contain unexplored genetic material that could be used to create new breakthrough pharmaceutical drugs or miracle crops. There is a robust business case for biodiversity conservation.
What is clear is that significant disruption to biodiversity and ecosystem services will have consequences for human welfare over time. But it doesn’t have to be this way. If you look at the values in the table below, drawn from Keeping the Amazon forests standing: a matter of values by Verweij, et al. The destruction of forest ecosystems has a cost.
We are part of an interconnected system. More awareness needs to be raised regarding the fact that many ecosystems are worth more intact than they are destroyed. These ecosystems are home to most of the world’s biodiversity. Their services as well as their biodiversity must be properly valued.
The loss of biodiversity throws up great moral questions for humanity. As we have seen, it poses great economic challenges for human welfare, but a lot can get lost when translating non-monetary values into the economic arena.
How many species critical or non-critical must be lost before this is seen as a crisis? Are we only to seek to retain species which are of benefit to humans? What is to be done with our current focus on charismatic species and endangered species, when it is known that a focus on ecosystem and habitat conservation is preferable for biodiversity conservation? These are all important questions which need to be answered.
At bottom, stopping and reversing biodiversity loss is as much about what direction our moral compass is pointing in, as it is about economics. This interjection of morality and values can bring an extra dimension to environmental management.
Why biodiversity loss continues
Biodiversity loss continues, because it is a complex problem to manage. It involves a staggeringly high number of stakeholders and those stakeholders would have to forego present economic benefits for what would seem to them to be uncertain future benefits. It is also a difficult problem to communicate.
Maybe you know, but maybe you are unaware, but 2011-2020 was designated as the United Nations Decade on Biodiversity.
We are already well into 2017 and despite the bold aims and the dedication of an entire decade to this cause, progress has been limited. The UN initiative has passed like a ship in the night. For more information on this UN project, please visit the video via the link below.
What is clear is that biodiversity is not being correctly valued on world markets. It is treated as an unlimited and dispensable commodity, when it is limited and precious. We must summon the courage needed to address this challenge.
What you need to know
This article looked into human action and biodiversity. We explained what biodiversity is, it is the variety and variability of life on Earth.
We looked into the causes of biodiversity loss, where pollution, overexploitation of resources, habitat loss, invasive species and climate change are the dominant drivers.
We also looked into why biodiversity matters, with its economic links to the pharmaceutical, food and industrial products sectors being particularly strong.
Morally, biodiversity loss also matters and these moral values and questions could be key to reframing and reigniting efforts to reduce and restore biodiversity losses.
We looked into why biodiversity loss continues. It is a wicked problem that is difficult to solve. But we must solve it. Our place in history depends on it.
Thank you for reading,
By Barnaby Nash
Please share your thoughts in the comments section below. It’s great to hear about other people’s experiences in taking sustainability forward.