Ecosystems and the Environment
When it comes to the environment and its multitude of issues, biodiversity is often unjustly left out of the conversation. In reality, biodiversity is what underpins the health of our planet, and it can have massive consequences if ignored. Urbanization, poaching, and pollution have put a significant strain on ecosystems and the species inhabiting them. Humans, it has been found, increase the extinction rate by 100 to 1000 times the natural extinction rate, which doesn’t account for human impact (“How many species…”). In fact, in the past 50 years, 29% of the bird population has vanished, which translates to 3 billion fewer birds and many more endangered species (Lambert). Additionally, an estimated one million species are at risk of extinction (“UN Report: Nature’s…”). The drastic uptick in extinct and endangered species has led to scientists labeling it as the sixth major extinction event.
Biodiversity is, simply put, the variety of life in the world, including both plants and animals. Biodiversity can be measured in a number of ways, but in general it can be thought of as a combination of species richness (the total number of species in a given area) and species abundance (the relative abundance of each species) (Urry et al.).
Ecosystems provide natural resources such as food, fuel, and clean water. They also decompose waste, control disease outbreaks, moderate the climate, pollinate plants, and purify water (“How does Biodiversity…”; “Biodiversity and Health”). Biodiversity loss puts all of these services at tremendous risk.
To understand the implications of a decrease in biodiversity, it must first be known that species within an ecosystem are dependent on one another. A change in one population will cause a ripple effect throughout the food web and subsequent fluctuations in other populations. For example, if a species of hawks relies on snakes as its food source, and the snake population goes extinct, the hawks will be left with less food and experience population decrease, but they still have other food sources, such as rodents and rabbits, so they will continue to survive. If the rodents and rabbits were removed due to biodiversity loss, and hawks were solely dependent on the snakes, they would also go extinct. As biodiversity continues to decrease with no sign of stopping, this situation could very well become a reality. This is why biodiversity is so important: it stabilizes the ecosystem so that the extinction or removal of one species won’t significantly alter other populations.
Economically speaking, the ecosystem and the services it provides account for about $33 trillion of the global economy (“How does Biodiversity…”). Hunting, fishing, tourism, and manufactured goods derived from animals all depend on a variety of animals to fuel their respective industries. For example, BBC reported that the presence of a single panda at the Memphis Zoo generated $20 million in revenue for the local economy annually (“The economic impact…”). The loss of a single species alone could cost the economy billions of dollars.
The sharp decline of diversity has posed a threat to human health and wellbeing. An often-cited example is the importance of bees and other pollinators. There are currently 20,000 species of bees, but many of those have recently become endangered or even critically endangered. Without bees, valuable fruits and vegetables wouldn’t be able to pollinate as effectively, if at all. In the absence of the facilitation of growth, many plant species would die off, leaving humans with less food and decreased nutrition (Petruzzello). Furthermore, many plant species provide genetic resources that are used to develop new, more efficient medicines or crop varieties. Lastly, biodiversity helps control the spread of disease. For example, passenger pigeons control the population of mice carrying Lyme disease, thereby lowering the risk of getting infected (Chapin III).
Finally, biodiversity contributes hugely to society and culture. Throughout the world, flora and fauna shape how cultures develop, such as how Native American tribes built their lifestyle around buffalo. These vibrant species are what makes each cultural group unique, and without them our world would be much more mundane and homogeneous. As specialist plants and animals are overtaken by generalist species, the entire world will be left with crows and racoons, instead of lynxes, koalas, and a host of other exciting wildlife.
Biodiversity loss, like most environmental issues, is caused first and foremost by humans and our exploitation of the natural environment. It is a symptom of pollution, global warming, and urbanization (Rafferty). All of these factors contribute to habitat destruction, which hurts wildlife’s ability to survive and reproduce. In the tropical rainforests of the Amazon, deforestation has caused devastating losses to tens of thousands of species.
Invasive species are another huge factor in biodiversity changes. A species is considered invasive if it is introduced to a foreign habitat where it has no natural predators. The population grows in abundance due to the lack of predators, outcompeting other species for resources. The introduction of tamarisk, an invasive shrub, to the United States has cost an estimated $115-230 million annually. Not only that, tamarisk also monopolizes water supply so that other plants can’t survive and increases wildfire risk (“Tamarisk”).
Foremost among conservation efforts are wildlife rehabilitation centers and enclosures, which rescue injured or abandoned animals and nurse them back to health. In some cases, they will be rereleased into the wild. However, the most proactive and effective way to preserve biodiversity is to simply stop encroaching on natural habitats and stop the problem at its source. With time, species diversity will rebound, and the ecosystem will stabilize. But in order for this to come to fruition, humans need to be environmentally conscious and actively try to preserve ecosystems instead of making ambiguous promises and policies. Two major actors in this front are the United Nations, and IBPES (Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services), which work with governments to educate and create effectual policies that promote sustainable development (“Work Programme”). The strategies enacted thus far have proven to be beneficial, providing some optimism in a rather bleak situation. Everyday citizens can contribute by choosing eco-friendly products, upcycling/reusing, and spreading the word. Many people aren’t aware or concerned about biodiversity loss, which greatly hinders any attempt to solve the problem.
We must protect the wildlife with which we share a home, for their lives are intimately connected with ours. Too often we have sacrificed nature for profit and human growth. Now, it is time to reverse our regrettable actions and repair the damage we have caused.
“Biodiversity and Health.” World Health Organization, 3 June 2015, www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/biodiversity-and-health
“How does Biodiversity loss affect me and everyone else?” World Wide Fund for Nature, wwf.panda.org/discover/our_focus/biodiversity/biodiversity_and_you/
“How many species are we losing?” World Wide Fund for Nature, wwf.panda.org/discover/our_ focus/biodiversity/biodiversity/.
Lambert, Jonathan. “We’ve lost 3 billion birds since 1970 in North America.” Science News, Society for Science & the Public, 19 Sept 2019, www.sciencenews.org/article/3-billion-birds-lost-since-1970-north-america.
Petruzzello, Melissa. “What Would Happen If All the Bees Died?” Encyclopedia Britannica, www.britannica.com/story/what-would-happen-if-all-the-bees-died.
Rafferty, John P. “biodiversity loss.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 14 Jun. 2019, www.britannica. com/science/biodiversity-loss.
“Tamarisk.” Riparian InVasion Research Laboratory, University of California, Santa Barbara, rivrlab.msi.ucsb.edu/invasive-species/tamarisk.
“The economic impact of pandas: A ‘giant tourist magnet’.” BBC, 4 Sept. 2013, www.bbc.com/ news/av/business-23961011.
“UN Report: Nature’s Dangerous Decline ‘Unprecedented’; Species Extinction Rates ‘Accelerating’.” United Nations, 6 May 2019, www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/blog/ 2019/05/nature-decline-unprecedented-report/.
Urry, Lisa A., et al. Campbell Biology in Focus. Pearson Education, 2014.
“Work Programme.” Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. ipbes.net/work-programme.
Chapin III, F., et al. “Consequences of changing biodiversity.” Nature, vol. 405, 2000, pp. 234–242, doi.org/10.1038/35012241