Biodiversity is a term used to describe the full mix of life on Earth. From the tiniest insects to the tallest trees—and everything in between. It even includes us—human beings—though we tend to forget we are part of the natural world.
Biodiversity is the foundation of the natural systems that produce clean air, drinkable water, a healthy climate, medicines, and food. Biodiversity also serves as a natural barrier against many diseases, including diseases that can turn into pandemics.
Importantly, the term refers not only to the number of plants, animals, and other organisms, but their variety. That variety is hugely significant since each different species has an important part to play in the larger whole. All of Earth’s natural systems depend on a delicate balance of plants, animals, and microbes to stay healthy—just like individual bodies require a healthy balance of nutrition. Taking away just one species can have severe consequences for the whole system. Take Yellowstone, for example: the removal of wolves from the landscape caused a shift in the overall ecology of the area, in part because the animals that wolves eat—especially deer—changed their behaviors without predators to keep them moving. So deer stayed by their water sources, and overgrazed those areas, causing rivers to change course, and plants like aspen to become scarcer. With fewer aspen there were fewer birds, and beavers then began to disappear. Scientists didn’t recognize the full impact of the wolves’ removal until wolves were reintroduced—and nature began to rebound.
There is inherent danger in biodiversity loss. When we lose a species, not only do we lose something fundamentally important in itself, but we also weaken those systems of which that species is a part. However, those impacts may not be immediately visible as nature can take a long time to show us that it is injured. We tend to take it for granted that nature will continue as it always has, endlessly providing us with all of our critical needs. But if nature isn’t healthy, it can’t support us.
biodiversity is in trouble
Unfortunately, biodiversity is in crisis. Wild animals and plants are disappearing at rates never before experienced during human existence. Scientists predict that one million species are headed for extinction within the coming decades as a result of human activity. An interactive map, published last week in the New York Times, and republished here, gives a graphic description of where species are most at risk in America. Alarmingly, exceptionally few places are protected.
For many people and elected officials, protecting wildlife and the environment have long been seen as secondary to more immediate concerns. That approach may make sense in the short-term: for example, protecting land from long-term development may seem irrelevant when you or your voters are out of work; likewise, if your property or livelihood are somehow threatened by wildlife, it may feel counterintuitive to protect that wildlife. Besides, for most of human history nature has seemed ‘infinite’. A critical error in our thinking.
Consequentially, conserving and protecting nature is consistently underfunded in spite of overwhelming evidence from scientists and our shared experience that failure to prioritize nature is causing serious harm to communities across the nation and around the world. Just last week, Congress passed a spending bill to fund the federal government through the remainder of the fiscal year (through September 30, 2022), though sadly, funding for conservation has once again failed to keep up with urgent needs. From the COVID-19 pandemic, which almost certainly arose through the wildlife trade, to record numbers of species’ extinction, to increases in the severity and frequency of climatic disasters, it is imperative that we shift our overall mentality and embrace the concept that protecting wildlife and biodiversity today is the only sensible choice that for both tomorrow and for the future. Our ability to thrive literally depends on it.
We need immediate action to protect biodiversity now. Why?
Biodiversity sustains our lives and our livelihoods. This cannot be overstated. Without it, we cannot survive, we cannot thrive.
Healthy ecosystems act as a critical buffer against natural disasters. For instance, nature can help us to manage stormwater and reduce flooding—this is fundamental as we experience an increase in flooding from severe storms and climate change. A single acre of wetlands can hold up to 1.5 million gallons of rain or melting snow[i], preventing flooding onto nearby communities. Along the same lines, one mature, 100-foot tree can absorb 11,000 gallons of stormwater per year[ii]. Preserving such natural features, including floodplains with a natural vegetation buffer along streams, can significantly slow, filter, and store polluted runoff. These same landscapes with higher levels of biodiversity are better able to abate extreme temperatures, withstand the effects of drought, and are thus more resilient to wildfires. Indeed, forested neighborhoods may enjoy ambient temperatures significantly cooler than those without green spaces in the same region. These are just a few examples of nature’s power to protect us.
These critical natural protections however, cannot exist without healthy levels of biodiversity. Each plant, animal, and insect species plays its role in the system. Removing one will affect the whole. Conserving and restoring biodiversity, therefore, provides a front line of defense against natural disasters, and can serve to protect human life, wellbeing, and property.
Biodiversity is also fundamental to mitigating climate change itself—beyond helping us adapt to natural disasters. The rich life that makes up the web of biodiversity works as an instrument to remove carbon from the atmosphere and sequester it in a variety of helpful ways. This pertains to both plants as well as animals. One great whale, for instance, will absorb an average of 33 tons of carbon dioxide during its lifetime, keeping it sequestered on the ocean floor long after its death.[iii] Furthermore, whale dung fertilizes phytoplankton, essentially plants that go on to remove 10 gigatons of carbon from the atmosphere each year.[iv] The interplay between species—both plant and animal—is critically important to the long-term success of efforts to fight climate change.
Protecting biodiversity also helps to protect against diseases. Most new diseases, including those that become pandemics, start out in animals and “spill over” into people as a result of human actions. By destroying natural habitats and engaging in wildlife trade, particularly in markets where wild animals are sold and slaughtered, we create unnatural opportunities for humans to come into direct contact with wildlife, providing the ideal conditions for such spillover to take place.
-Kate Wall, IFAW Senior Legislative Director
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