That other environmental crisis

8 11 2007

With all the attention on climate change (and about time), it is easy to forget that there are other global environmental threats which will harm human health and the well-being of all human societies this century. In my view, the one that stands out is the biodiversity contraction that is presently underway.

It is incredible to think that the term “biodiversity” only came into existence around 1986. Since then, the field has opened up enormously and we have learnt a great deal about the web of life, and the functioning and evolutionary history of the natural world. Biodiversity occurs at many levels. Diversity within populations, within species and within and between ecosystems are all important aspects.

There are certain links with climate change of course. Mid-range “business as usual” global warming is predicted to contribute to the extinction of maybe 1/3 of all living species this century. Similarly, there are some common contributors to both dilemmas, for example the loss of forests. Of course, there have been five previous extinction events throughout pre-history, although this one differs in at least two ways. Firstly, the pace of species loss has never been greater. It is thought we are running at between 100 and 1000 times the background or “natural” rate of extinctions. Secondly, it is entirely unprecedented that one species should come to dominate almost every conceivable ecosystem and biological niche. This should worry us greatly, even if just from a selfish perspective.

The drivers of lost biodiversity include – land use change, the spread of exotic pests and weeds, climate change, pollution and poisons, industrial mono-cultural agricultural systems, trade in endangered animal products, gross over-fishing. There are many other indirect drivers.

The health consequences of biodiversity loss will include the loss of medicinal plants and medical models, the emergence of infectious diseases, and weakened global food production. Critical declines in ecosystem services (the things nature does for us) can be expected – water purification, break-down of waste and pollution, pollination, sequestering carbon and so on. We shouldn’t forget the psychological harms of a degraded biosphere, loss of amenity, aesthetics, and sense of place. Ethical considerations also speak to us profoundly. What right do we as a species have to inflict this on the remainder of the world’s living creatures? It is immensely unethical. Extinction is forever.

Australia’s record is worse than any other continent. Since European colonisation, we have lost 19 species of mammals alone, and another 10 exist only on offshore islands after being once widespread on the mainland. We must be particularly careful given that 80% of our plants and animals are found nowhere else in the world. Yet we can walk into any nursery in this country and buy plants known to be frequent garden escapees and noxious, invasive weeds.

In the end, we must remember that saving “life” will take more than a few focussed zoo breeding programs. If the habitat is gone, many such animals could be regarded as the “living dead”. We must target the key drivers head on. It is particularly urgent given that – like climate change – there will be a big lag between action and results. A certain number of extinctions are “built-in” and inevitable no matter what we do from here on. Fortunately, many of the actions that mitigate against climate change also help biodiversity. A holistic approach will be needed and environmental concerns must inform every decision we make, at individual, community, national and international levels – just as economic considerations do now.

So let’s get started.

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3 responses

8 11 2007
ClareSnow

Part of the reason that

Australia’s record is worse than any other continent

is that people have been here the least amount of time and European colonisation happened most recently (not counting Antarctica). Thus our biodiversity is one of the highest anywhere in the world.

Which of course, doesn’t make it ok, but throughout history wherever people go, extinction of other species increases and biodiversity shrinks.

This is related to the lack of huge animals these days. On every continent there used to be giant mammals eg. mammoths. Then people came along and hunted them to extinction. People came later to Australia and our giant critters lived for a bit longer eg. giant wombats, kangaroos, etc. But once people came to australia from asia, the big animals were hunted to extinction.

Mentioning giant earthworms in a blog post started my thinking on this. They survived the mass extinction because they live underground and people wouldn’t have come across them much. Then we came along and started farming and excavating for building, roads, etc. Now giant earthworms are close to extinction. (I once had someone find my post by searching on “buy giant earthworm” how much was he willing to pay!?)

ps. i don’t know if what i just wrote is scientific fact. i might have read about it somewhere along the line, but i have no sources to back it up. so it could all just be rambling 🙂

9 11 2007
Verdurous

Clare,

Valids points.
It should have perhaps read “Australia’s record in recent times, is worse than any other continent.”
I’ve heard it said about Western Europe that the battle is over. It was man vs. nature and nature lost. So there is much less diversity in that part of the world than many others.

One need only to compare the British Isles (low endemicity) with the Hawaiian islands (very high endemicity) for an interesting contrast. Perhaps Western Europe is, to an extent, benefiting from the biodiversity of other places. Check this link for interesting summary stats on extinctions and endangered species.

http://www.iucnredlist.org/info/stats

Of course species richness is only one aspect of biodiversity. As an aside – I’m becoming interested in the idea of “biocultural” diversity too. Check it out.

And um…no thanks I don’t need any giant earthworms at this stage, but let me know if you have a sale sometime 🙂

15 11 2007
John Feeney

“Fortunately, many of the actions that mitigate against climate change also help biodiversity. A holistic approach will be needed and environmental concerns must inform every decision we make, at individual, community, national and international levels – just as economic considerations do now.”

Yep, it’s all connected, isn’t it?

I think you’ve hit the nail on the head in pointing to the mass extinction rates as the other big environmental crisis. As we tear apart the web of life, at some point we threaten our own survival. And before that, we create what Dave Foreman of the Rewilding Institute calls “a nightmare world of deafening silence where no bird sings.”

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