The global crisis of biodiversity
A lot of lives may already have been doomed in our ignorance, and more will, unless we take action.
By Alexander Simenson
Human impacts on nature vary in how long they last and how reversible they are. The more irreversible environmental harm is, the more important it is to stop it from occurring. Even if all human activities harmful to nature stopped now, their effects would go on for a long time. For example, it may take nature centuries to remove plastic pollution and lower carbon dioxide levels after we stopped using plastic and fossil fuels entirely.
When it comes to permanent harm to the planet, one impact of human activity stands out, i.e., extinction – the main result of anthropogenic impact on the environment. Many living species have been driven to extinction while many, including much of the large types, are at risk of extinction. Barring speculative advances in biotechnology, once a species goes, its loss is permanent.
But just what is the impact of extinction? Each and every species plays a role in the ecosystem. Living organisms form links in a net, and if a link is cut, the net becomes less effective in holding the eco system. When a species is lost, things usually become worse for other species.
For example, if the African bush elephant is driven to extinction by poachers, the African savannah will never be the same again because elephants play a big role in savannah ecosystem. They spread seeds and remove trees and shrubs to allow grass to thrive, which is food for smaller animals. The Asian and the Congo elephant cannot replace them as they are not as big and prefer to live in forests.
The big point of this article is not the damage that happens, but whether it can be reversed. Suppose the bush elephant only goes extinct in the wild but survives in zoos and circuses. Once thepoaching threat is brought down by improved law enforcement and decreased demand for ivory, bush elephants can be reintroduced into nature. The ecological damage can be reversed. This cannot happen if the last of African bush elephants on the planet die.
We will now look at what extinction means for civilization, for the humans that are causing extinction in the first place. The biosphere is one of humanity’s most valuable resources and many living things already are used in the shape of crops and livestock we raise. Their existence is sustained by us so they are not in danger. But there are many wild organisms harvested for usage. They are often at risk of extinction due to that because unlike in agriculture, we take but do not give back to them. There might be many possible uses in the biosphere which we do not know of yet. While agriculture is our main resource, every single living thing on Earth, every plant, animal, fungus, microbe, even virus, could conceivably be of use to us.
Take the same bush elephant. Unlike its Asian cousin, it is not amenable to training. But if we find a way to do so, it might be useful, being larger than the elephants from Asia and capable of more work. The Asian elephant has shown how valuable a resource elephants are. They are like giant working machines, strong, versatile, running on fuel that is found all around us. High intelligence is among their distinct traits, along with trunks that can lift 770 pounds. The most remarkable feature about them, perhaps, is the built-in safety compliance. Reportedly, in India once, an elephant was made to pick up logs and insert them into holes in preparation for a ceremony. The elephant did it dutifully but refused to fill in at one particular hole and stood holding the log in its trunk. The elephant rider went forward to take a look and saw that a dog was sleeping in the hole.
Asian elephants are domesticated and in no danger of going extinct, but to retain the possibility of being able to tame African elephant, we will have to keep the species alive. Elephants may come in handy if there is a widespread catastrophe causing disuse of machinery, or if technological collapse occurs from fossil fuels running out in the future. Humanity’s knowledge of the use of each species is evolving. Loss of species means ending the source of knowledge and its potential benefit forever.
Food is a major use of living things. Only those living things that are under cultivation present a reliable food supply for us. As world’s population swells, it may be important to expand the number of living things we rear. It could hold the key to ending hunger and alleviating poverty. But first, we have to make sure our footprint does not cause extinction of species.
Medicine is another major use. Medicine is all about the right chemicals and there is a huge variety of chemicals produced in the biosphere. Medicine has been harvested from wild species since time immemorial. We are now discovering new medicinal compounds as our exploration of the biosphere accelerates. Cancer drugs are being discovered in the ocean and antibiotics are being found in the Arctic. We never know what new medicine we may find in living things in the wild, as this knowledge frontier is open. If an organism with unique medicinal value goes extinct, we deprive human beings of a source that can save lives.
A lot of lives may already have been doomed in our ignorance, and more will, unless we take action. Species are going extinct at an alarming rate. It is estimated that dozens of species go extinct each day. In fact, many species may be going extinct without us even knowing they existed in the first place. For example, tropical rainforests are rich in bio-diversity and little-explored places. All the time, we are finding new species in these wild places. But rainforests are also being logged at a massive scale and unknown species may be vanishing along with the forest cover.
Biodiversity is the term referring to the variety of life on Earth and we are decreasing that variety every which way. There are three kinds of biodiversity, ecosystem diversity, which concerns relationships between species, species diversity, which concerns the existence of species, and genetic diversity, which is the variety of genetic material in existence, including the number of genes within a species. Just like every species may have an importance, so does every gene, so the latter two kinds of biodiversity is what we must protest most carefully. If ecosystem diversity is disrupted, it can be reversed. Imran Khan’s tree campaign is about reversing disruption. But extinction is irreversible and must be guarded against.
Preventing bad things from happening is a universal imperative. Preventing bad that is irreversible should be a priority. Extinction is an imperceptible and severe ecological crisis. Awareness of this crisis is necessary to prevent extinction. We need to discover the importance of each endangered species to ascribe priority to saving the most important ones.
We need to re-evaluate the charitable donations we make. We prefer giving to those who help the deprived of the world. Keeping in mind humanity’s future, we should also support organizations involved in conservation, scientific research, and bio-prospecting, which is the search for drugs and valuable products from living organisms.
This is an urgent wake-up call.
Alexander Simenson is a journalist with focus on environment. He is also a poet, motivational speaker and author.