Biodiversity: the invisible crisis

It’s not a number, it’s a measure of the health of an ecosystem

One hundred species will go extinct today. Another hundred tomorrow, and a further hundred the day after that. We lose roughly one hundred species of plants and animals every single day, and it’s all your fault.

The figures may only be estimates, just as we are not sure exactly how many species we share the planet with, but it is certain that we lose tens of thousands of species every year, which means you are currently living through the greatest extinction event since the dinosaurs died out sixty-five million years ago. We face the startling truth that the impact we have on life on Earth is equivalent to a 10km² asteroid crashing into the Gulf of Mexico. The real problem, however, is that, unlike an asteroid collision, we can’t feel it when those species disappear forever. Biodiversity loss is an invisible crisis.

Holly Moeller, in an article on the 9th of February for The Tech (“Biodiversity misses the point”), argues that conservation practices are undermined by their focus of protecting biodiversity. Unfortunately, conservation is biodiversity conservation ­­— what else is there to conserve? She also argued that conservationists had to take into account the “bigger picture.” This is a false perception of conservation efforts. Conservationists do not simply “tally the genes” or count the number of species; instead they are constantly making complex decisions in order to best apply the limited resources that conservation projects control.

Factors considered include the evolutionary “uniqueness” of species, the age of their lineages, the level of threat, ecosystem function, and the cost-effectiveness of the project. This is why a deep-sea microbe is not necessarily as valuable as a “smiling dolphin.” For example, the relative conservation priority of species depends partly on their redundancy, or how easily their role in the ecosystem can be filled by alternative species. Bacteria typically have great redundancy, whereas dolphins may be more difficult to replace. This argument, of course, ignores the question whether these microbes are likely to be in need of our help anyway.

In any case, for many people conservation itself is the “bigger picture.” Conservationists realize what Big Business seems to have forgotten: that all humans are fundamentally tied to their environment, that human welfare is dependent on the functioning of our surrounding ecosystems.

The value of biodiversity has long been debated but many now believe that should we protect it not only for aesthetic or moral reasons, but also for economic ones. Ecosystem services are the plethora of functions benefiting humanity that nature carries out for free, including providing clean water, storing and recycling our wastes, and removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Global ecosystem services have been calculated at around $33 trillion, equal to more than half of total global economic output. Research has now shown that the efficiency of an ecosystem’s services is related to how much biodiversity is preserved, or how intact the ecosystem is. All of which makes biodiversity of critical importance. If you care about economics, then you care about biodiversity, because ecosystems without biological diversity stop acting like ecosystems.

So, 2010 is the official Year of Biodiversity. Yes, it’s essentially a worthless title, and as 30 percent of all mammals, birds and amphibians threatened with extinction this century, it seems 2010 will probably matter as little to biodiversity as The Year of Einstein (2005) mattered to Einstein. On the other hand, if it raises awareness of a crucial, invisible crisis, we should applaud that — not question it.