What is Biodiversity? And why should it matter to you?
Biological diversity is a vital sign for nature’s complex life-support systems. If you have too few species in a given environment, the complex ecosystem that makes life work in that environment is more vulnerable to serious disruption.
To put it bluntly, a less biodiverse ecosystem has fewer items on the menu. This means that far more species in that ecosystem are vulnerable to population collapse, if their food supply is disrupted. But this is also an oversimplification.
What we really don’t want is depletion of nutritious food sources and a depletion of wider, underlying ecosystem health, while dangerous or parasitic microbes proliferate and prey on vulnerable plants and animals, including people.
Our food supply is dependent not only on sun, nutrients in the soil, and water. It is also dependent on the pollinators that make sure crops flourish—at the right time and in balance with the ecosystem around them—and also, perhaps less obviously, on the specific wildflower species the pollinators need to keep them around the rest of the time.
Biological diversity sustains natural systems that sustain life.
A collapse in biodiversity means scarcity of what sustains life.
Plant and animal species often interact in vital ways, not only providing food or fertilizer, but also protecting each other against potential threats. One way animals protect each other is by raising an alarm call when a predator is closing in. It is not uncommon for mammals to be warned of predators by birds, or vice versa.
Plant species often provide medicine, not only to medical science, but also to animals that have evolved to prefer certain plants as a way to deal with certain adverse conditions, or even to other plants. Trees have been found to share nutrients, water supply, symbiotic fungi and microbes, and even information, with each other.
We benefit from the immense biodiversity of certain “hotspots” like the Amazon rainforest or the deep ocean. This is so much the case that major global agreements include provisions to manage access to biochemical and genetic “resources” that naturally exist in the unique life-forms found in these special places.
Climate, ecosystems, air and water quality, and biodiversity, add up to the biosphere—the space where life exists.
We often separate subject matter areas within the realm of environmental protection into separate categories: endangered species, clean air and water, coastal ecosystems, ocean resilience, climate, and biodiversity—for instance. But all of these are part of one integrated fabric—the biosphere.
When we talk about doing well or poorly in any of these areas, we are talking about whether we protect or endanger the biosphere—the space where life is possible. To say that the biosphere exists, and that life is possible, is not to say that the places and systems that comprise the biosphere will always harbor life, or that harboring life means making human existence easy or enjoyable.
Complex nonlinear interacting systems—made up of widely variable numbers of competing and cooperative species, and also of geophysical forces—determine whether the biosphere will be full of life.
If Mars, for instance, has a biosphere, planetary physics would appear to have narrowed its scope so dramatically we cannot see it—not with the naked eye, not with powerful telescopes, not with advanced robots conducting careful chemical experiments looking for traces of ongoing biological processes.
Biodiversity is a non-political, non-market measure of our security and wellbeing.
We don’t tend to be aware that eating a particular piece of fruit from a particular grower—about which we may know nothing—means funding the use of a particular pesticide that is killing pollinators and undermining biodiversity. And yet, that kind of thing happens throughout our everyday experience; we have leverage to make the broader human relationship with biodiversity more or less responsible.
We should get used to asking for and keeping track of information like that. The health of everything that sustains life depends on our doing better.
The COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic is demonstrating that we are in fact a global community, connected in one vast ethical fabric. We need to make use of that connectivity to build a healthier relationship with each other, and with the natural world.
One of the great challenges in this turbulent year will be to secure the foundation for responsible stewardship of biodiversity. The following are ongoing intergovernmental negotiations that can achieve significant progress toward safeguarding biodiversity.
- Negotiations toward a new Agreement on Conservation and Sustainable Use of Biodiversity in areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ), under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea
- The next round of negotiations under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD)
- The climate-smart investment and asset-building opportunities connected to the United Nations Climate Change negotiations (COP26)
In whatever form these processes move forward, it is in the interests of every person, every community, and every nation, that they succeed in protecting and expanding the space for healthy biologically diverse ecosystems.