The air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat all rely on biodiversity.
But when you spend most of your days looking at a computer screen, like many of us, it’s not always easy to grasp the concept and importance of biodiversity. No worries, we got you.
The term biodiversity comes from biological diversity. Of course we can all think of giraffes, eagles and butterflies, but biodiversity includes not just animals, but any living thing on our planet.
Biodiversity refers to the variety of life on Earth at all its levels, from genes to ecosystems, and can encompass the evolutionary, ecological, and cultural processes that sustain life.
So far, we (well, ok, scientists…) have been able to identify and describe 1.2 million different species. Most of these are insects, but also think plants, bacteria, fungi and microbes. However, it’s also estimated that there are around 8.7 million species in existence. That means that 85% of all life on earth is still undescribed and unknown to us.
If you want to dive deeper into all those species around the world, have a look at Map of Life, that lists species per geographic area. Recently, they’ve developed an interactive map that also helps to predict where new species might be discovered.
And that actually happens more often than you might think. Researchers are continuously discovering new species of life. In just the past week, we’ve learned about the existence of this marsupial frog in the Amazon in Peru; as well as three types of frogs, a monkey and a venomous snake in Tibet. How amazing is that!
But biodiversity isn’t just identifying and counting species. It’s about their characteristics and how they interact with each other, creating ecosystems that are healthy and resilient, so that life on our planet is possible for all of us.
A healthy wetland ecosystem for instance cleans water and absorbs chemicals, we know from a previous jargon buster that soil and forests are huge carbon absorbers, and the Amazon plays an important role in weather patterns.
However… – yup, sorry, here comes the doom and gloom again… –
The WWF indices the state of biodiversity based on population trends of vertebrate species (species that have a backbone) in its Living Planet Index. And, quite shockingly, it shows a global average 68% decrease in population sizes of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish between 1970 and 2016.
We all know the images of polar bears on a lonesome shard of ice, and heard about the looming extinction of tigers and panda bears. But did you know that soil hosts one of the largest reservoirs of biodiversity on Earth? Up to 90% of living organisms, including some pollinators, spend part of their life cycle in soil habitats. (To dig deeper into soil – pun not intended… – put Kiss the Ground on your watchlist!)
There are millions of tiny species under threat that live in our soils, and there is a huge diversity in trees, plants and insects. All of these are part of complex ecosystems that support life on Earth and they are all showing signs of stress.
The Living Planet Report identifies five key threats to biodiversity:
Changes in land use
Because of population growth, the expanding economy, and increase in industry and trade in the last decades, the most important direct driver of biodiversity loss has been land-use change, where native habitats are turned into agricultural land to produce our food, or to make room for housing.
To fulfill our needs, we also overexploit and use our natural resources in an unsustainable way. Much of the oceans have been overfished, with 88% of Community fish stocks fished down beyond maximum sustainable yields. (Don’t forget to check Seaspiracy if you haven’t yet!). And intensive monocrop agriculture with high use of fertilizers and pesticides lead to soil erosion and disease.
When a non-native species is introduced in an ecosystem, they can start competing with existing species for food, eating them or interbreeding – which can cause an original, native species to go extinct. For instance, amphibians around the world are declining, partly due to an invasive fungus.
A major and increasing cause of biodiversity loss and ecosystem dysfunction is caused by air pollution from nitrogen and phosphorus, mostly from agriculture and transport. This then deposits from the air, by what’s commonly known as ‘acid rain’, and causes acidification of oceans and soil. This changes ecosystems and habitats and limits the abilities of the ecosystem and its species to function well and grow.
As we mentioned in another jargon buster, the impact of climate change on biodiversity comes from complex interactions and feedback loops. Between species, and between species and their habitats. As temperatures and ecosystems change, some species can no longer survive and will either adapt, move or go extinct. Changes in temperature can also mess with the signals that trigger seasonal events such as migration and reproduction, causing these events to happen at the wrong time.
Anthropocentric and Ecocentric
Species are going extinct at an accelerated and dangerous rate. What it comes down to once again, is that this mainly because of non-natural environmental changes caused by human activities.
Many of our Western religions, philosophies and belief systems are based in an anthropocentric view, regarding humans as separate and superior to nature, holding that only human life has intrinsic value while all other living beings are ‘resources’ to be exploited for our benefit.
As far as we’re concerned, nature and all its species have intrinsic value. This means any living thing has value for simply being, and it doesn’t matter if its existence benefits humans or not (which would be instrumental value).
From an ecocentric point of view, it can be painful to see how some people treat nature, and sometimes we struggle with the question of ‘who the heck do we think we are destroying all this beautiful and precious life?’ It’s not always easy being a changemaker.
But even if you don’t see it that way, and you take a more utilitarian and instrumental point of view regarding nature; you should still care deeply about biodiversity.
A healthy biodiversity provides a number of natural services for everyone, including ecosystem services (like pollution breakdown, carbon storage and protecting water) biological resources (such as food, wood, and medicine) as well as social benefits.
The cost of replacing these services (and in many cases, that’s not even possible!) would be extremely high. So yes, caring for biodiversity and acting on it also makes economic sense.
Biodiversity helps make the global economy more resilient, it functions as an integral part of our culture and identity, and research has shown it’s even linked to our physical health.
Biodiversity really is the basis of life.
So for the sake of all of us, let’s honour, cherish and celebrate life in all its forms and create businesses that are regenerative instead of exploitative, and work with nature, not against it.
Minou & Pamela