The human race has achieved many great things in its relatively short time as a species. Overcoming a purely ‘survival of the fittest’ approach to life our species has produced incredible art and made great leaps forward in the understanding of life, the universe and everything. Unfortunately, when it comes to the effect mankind has on biodiversity we have been about as helpful as the proverbial bull blundering around a china shop.
Extinction rates of species show that ecosystems cannot withstand the multiple pressures humans are placing on the environment and according to the IUCN Red List, out of the 63,837 species which have been evaluated, 31% of them are threatened. Amphibians are currently the most hard done by group of species with 42% of all species rapidly declining in population . If that doesn’t persuade you that we need to act fast to conserve the species we have then I may be tempted to say you are as mad as a box of frogs. Though if everyone had such an indifference to the state of the world we live in there may not be any frogs in the future so you would just be as mad as a box, with the original saying being lost in the future generations of a frog-less world. While the effect biodiversity loss may have on the English language is more than enough to persuade me that conservation is essential, I suspect there may be a few people who disagree. After all, in the midst of the current financial crisis and widespread poverty how can we warrant spending so much on conserving biodiversity?
To understand why biodiversity is important, logic dictates that we should first define what it is. The most widely accepted definition is that used by the Convention of Biological Diversity and essentially describes biodiversity as the “diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems” . This definition includes diversity of genes, populations, species and ecosystems alongside their interactions, thereby giving a much broader idea of biodiversity than a simple count of the number of species.
Now this is all well and good but admittedly the above definition does not explain why biodiversity is so important to humans. Any benefits that humans gain from an ecosystem are referred to as ‘ecosystem services’. These ecosystem services are indispensable to humans and include food, water, carbon sequestration, fuel and cultural benefits to name but a few. The delivery of ecosystem services is in turn highly dependent upon biodiversity, for example diversity of microorganisms is required for soil nutrient cycles which maintain healthy fertile soils. Final ecosystem services give rise directly to a good, e.g. trees give rise to various goods including timber. Genetic diversity and species diversity are also both final ecosystem services. Greater diversity means there is increased potential for wild medicines and, from the perspective of food production, genetic diversity of wild crop relatives provides stability against disease and climate change by providing potentially resistant hybrids. Biodiversity can also been seen as a good itself, in the form of its aesthetic and recreational values amongst other things . From the perspective of the cultural ecosystem services, the value humans place on different species and ecosystems is not equal. Anyone who has seen an advert for wildlife charities has surely noticed that a cute and cuddly animal tends to be the poster child for these charities as oppose to a slightly less cuddly beetle. It is important to bear in mind that conservation which is based solely on these values may not necessarily be working to maintain particularly diverse communities. Consequently in order to provide a cost effective approach to conservation the values and benefits of all the ecosystem services provided have to be taken into account as it is not practical or realistic to try and conserve all species .
While this displays the importance of the general role that biodiversity plays in our everyday lives, if we look at a few case studies we can see how maintenance of biodiversity and ecosystems is intertwined with reducing poverty. Food production is a major factor in economic markets and contributes greatly to employment worldwide. This is particularly true of low income countries with per capita incomes less than $765. Overall, agriculture contributes 24.7% of GDP in these countries as opposed to a worldwide GDP of 2.8% . With agriculture playing such a large role in providing employment and income for developing countries it is clear that destruction of these ecosystem services would have the harshest impact on the poor, but the effects would also be felt worldwide. Despite the potential for short term gains to a countries economy which may be obtained by depletion of their natural resources via deforestation or other methods, in the long term this can lead to economic losses. This was seen in 2001 when several countries including Ecuador, Ethiopia and Kazakhstan experienced a positive growth in net savings; however after factoring in the depletion of natural resources and damages caused by carbon emissions they were showing a loss in net savings .
Millions of people globally are dependent upon wild species of animals and plants for food and medicinal purposes, but due to various factors such as habitat loss and over exploitation these species have a higher than average risk of extinction. Conservation of the biodiversity of these wild species is essential when you look at the fact that some 80% of people in developing countries around the world are reliant upon traditional medicines extracted mostly from plants . Consequently it is essential that efforts to reduce poverty factor in the importance of biodiversity as without it the poor will slip further into poverty.
- IUCN Red List 2012 http://www.iucnredlist.org/
- Convention on Biological Diversity Secretariat, Global Biodiversity Outlook 3 (CBD, Montreal, 2010)
- Mace et al (2012).TREE, 27(1), 19-26.
- The World Bank 2012 http://www.worldbank.org/
- Millenium Ecosystem Assessment: Ecosystems and Human Well-being 2005