“The most important task for a modern society, is to learn how to mimic or copy how the natural world operates” (Timmerman, 2017, p.13).
If a person is sitting in the International Space Station and they look outside they’ll notice that beautiful blue planet and wonder: Why is it blue? Well, the Earth is blue for one reason: It is the home to life and as far as humans know, the Earth is the only blue planet in the universe that is home to life. But, what makes Earth a home to life?
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Biodiversity is a term frequently heard, it is a combination of two words: Bio meaning life and diversity meaning variety. What makes biodiversity so important that it’s heard so often? What is its significance in modern day society? And why is it associated with scary words such as conservation, extinction and endangered? Biodiversity, also known as biological diversity, is a concept that first emerged during the 1980’s due to rising concerns about the impact of human beings on the planet. Given that us human beings are so influential in what we do, clearly, we must have a global impact. Over the course of time this concept has had many definitions and interpretations, the simplest definition is: the number and variety of organisms. Usually these organisms are found in specific geographic regions, including various species of plants and animals and the ecosystems they form and occupy. Biodiversity is responsible for the formation of the Earth’s atmosphere, it’s responsible for the variety of elements that compose the atmosphere such as nitrogen, oxygen and argon. That atmosphere made it possible for water to exist on the surface of the planet, thus the ocean was formed. Deep in that ocean, billions of organisms that do not depend on light and have never seen light except the artificial light from human sources exist. These organisms have managed to survive in harsh conditions thanks to processes that were never heard of or seen until recently. Near the surface, other, more recognizable organisms like the Jellyfish thrive, and although the Jellyfish never developed a proper nervous system they have been around for billions of years. Above the surface of the ocean are the diverse biomes of Earth (deserts, tundra, grasslands) different kinds of vegetation (mosses, fungi) and animals exist, we all share their planet and we are all part of biodiversity. Biodiversity is all around us, most of it is small (bacteria), in fact, most people would be surprised by the number of bacteria that live on their bodies -almost ten times the number of cells humans have in their body, and that is a big number-. These bacteria aren’t harmful, in fact, they aid us in daily tasks such as digestion. Other bacteria help grow trees and are used in biotechnology applications to produce energy and help sanitize water (Dr. Biology, 2014, p.1). Humans themselves are a big part of biodiversity, we don’t all have the same skin colour, the same voice, eyes, hair, height… the genetic diversity in humans is what makes them different. Biodiversity also helps greatly in regulating the Earth’s climate “Currently, terrestrial and marine ecosystems absorb roughly half of the CO2 emissions humanity generates” (Ballantyne, Smith, & Tans, 2017, p. 9).
We know that our planet is host to many forms of life, from the tiniest bacteria and fungi to the gigantic blue whales and Sherman trees. We also know that many species are on the verge of extinction, an unusually quick mass extinction event is what humans are witnessing today, something that happened before five times in the history of the Earth but never was humanity present to witness it, scientists like to call it “The Sixth Mass Extinction”. Many people argue that the extinction of one species is part of evolution, and that the species will resurface eventually stronger than before. This statement is correct but presented in this case is invalid since we’ve never seen a species vanish so quickly. Mass extinction is what we’re witnessing in this scenario, species won’t be given a chance to evolve if they are suddenly wiped out (Kolbert, 2014, p. 15). So why is it different this time? The answer is simple: Human activity is the leading cause of the sixth mass extinction. So how are humans contributing to the destruction of biodiversity?
A great many people believe that poaching is the greatest threat facing biodiversity today, as big of a threat as poaching is, unfortunately that’s not the case. “Over the last century, species of vertebrates are dying out up to 114 times faster than they would have without human activity” (Geggel, 2015). Due to human activity, we are eliminating more species faster than we are discovering new ones. We are constantly polluting the environment thus changing background environmental conditions faster than nature can respond and we cut down hundreds of acres of forest before we’ve had time to document or study the species that live there. The mistake that we unfortunately keep repeating over and over again, is that we usually worry about the loss of species once it is too late to effectively and economically do anything about it, all of these trends are contributing to the loss of biodiversity.
The importance of biodiversity can not be overstated, we depend on it in our daily lives in ways that are not often appreciated and like everything else, we generally take it for granted. Most of the world’s natural processes would become obsolete if biodiversity was lost, for instance, if there were not different kinds of plants, energy would not be transferred efficiently from producers to consumers -herbivores eat plants and carnivores eat herbivores- and the carbon cycle would collapse as a result. “Three-quarters of the world’s food today comes from just 12 crops” (Carrington, 2017, p. 1). You may think that this is a miniscule number and that we shouldn’t lose sleep over it, except those 12 species of crops would cease to exist should they stop relying on other lesser-known species that are responsible for keeping it healthy and preventing it from rotting too quick. So, as you can see, our food supply depends heavily on biodiversity, we need a variety of species to help support our population. If that wasn’t enough, many of the chemicals and substances responsible for fighting illnesses in medicine are derived from exotic plants. Aspirin, for example, is made from the bark of the willow tree. The rosy periwinkle, a flower native to Madagascar has produced very effective cancer treatments, one for childhood leukemia and the other one for Hodgkin’s disease (Roberson, 2008, p.10). Logically, the values of biodiversity outweigh any human excuses, in many places human beings use biodiversity for their profit: Catching fish from the sea, harvesting wood to build houses, furniture and other necessities, those direct uses of biodiversity provide economical wellbeing to many communities. As mentioned before, we use bacteria to provide clean and safe drinking water, other bacteria are used for controlling pests and weeds or pollination of crops. Biodiversity is also important because of all the recreational opportunities it provides, literally the most basic beauty of biodiversity is its own beauty. Spending time in nature bird watching, jogging or cycling by a lake helps the body heal and makes the mind more creative, it gives us better memory and even reduces pro-inflammatory proteins in the body. It must be said though, that despite all the positive values that come from biodiversity, there exists a negative one, the unpleasant aspects of biodiversity in its relation to human beings. You won’t find, for instance, many people arguing for the right of existence of the smallpox virus or the malarial parasite, many people are frightened of snakes and crocodiles, for good reason too. So, there is a part of the natural world that we fear and that’s always present in all societies.
The greatest issue that threatens biodiversity, however, is the exponential and indefinite growth of human population especially within the last few decades and naturally, the more the human population of Earth increases, the higher the chances of it having some sort of effect on the environment and it’s most likely not going to be a positive one. As the population increases we naturally have to look for more sources of food and land to settle. One day soon, the human population may exceed the carrying capacity of Earth and there may not be enough food to feed a great many of the population. Fortunately, thanks to human technology, we have the ability to come up with solutions to problems that are facing us at almost every turn, the scientists’ solution to this problem was to implement modern science and technology in agriculture to boost food production. Nevertheless, that is merely a temporary solution, should the population continue to grow at the same rate and consume the same amount of food that it does we will reach a point where there won’t be enough food to feed many mouths on the planet, and famine will spread. We would then have to rely on excessive hunting and poaching which ultimately will lead to the same result: the extinction of several species of animals. Overpopulation and overconsumption underlie most of the problems we face today, overconsumption is a direct result of overpopulation and it isn’t just restricted to the consumption of food, it also includes the consumption of natural resources. Human beings have a bad habit of misusing the natural resources they have at their disposal, what’s even worse is that the resources that human beings currently depend on, during the process of their consumption, have negative effects on the environment. Because of overpopulation, more jobs must be provided, the need to industrialize will grow and although this may seem like a good thing, it really isn’t. Because of industrialization, more factories will be built, there will be more burning of fossil fuels which will in turn increase the level of carbon dioxide emissions in the atmosphere releasing sulphates and nitrates in the air which will lead to pollution, as well as acid rains. Acid rains are a big deal when it comes to biodiversity, the released sulphates and nitrates from the burning of fossil fuels mix with the water vapor in the air and rise to form clouds, when it rains, the water drops that fall sink deep into the ground and make the soil infertile, thus all the animals that depended on the vegetation that grew in this soil will eventually die. That’s not all, acid rains also affect lakes and rivers causing acidification, animals depend on them as a source of water but so do we, not only do they provide us with safe drinking water but also with food, the fish who live is these water bodies will most definitely be affected by the increased acidity brought about from acid rains. And if that’s not enough, acid rains can in fact, travel from country to country, you could say that they are contagious in some sort. Should one country be affected by acid rains, soon enough a neighbouring country will be affected by acid rains too and because of that, the loss of biodiversity in one country will lead to the same loss in the neighbouring one. Another result of overpopulation is deforestation, population growth leads to the loss of natural habitats, as in more trees to cut down and animals to chase away from their habitat to make way for urbanization. Deforestation doesn’t just affect plants and animals, trees help by decreasing the effect of greenhouse gases as they absorb carbon dioxide and release the oxygen that we breathe, too much deforestation may lead to what is known as soil erosion, it has a long-term impact of the fertility of the soil, by increasing the number of sediments in lakes and rivers, therefore it’s considered to be a direct cause of pollution. The burning and cutting down of trees is also one of the main causes of global warming, trees help in some way to regulate the temperature of the surface by absorbing light. As the temperature of the Earth keeps on rising more problems will arise, the impact will be severe, and we are starting to see the results of such impacts nowadays. The melting of ice sheets in the polar regions is just the start and will certainly have effects on the animals that live in both poles: polar bears, penguins and seals might soon be endangered, some of them already are. We are also affected by the melting of ice sheets, when ice melts it increases the sea level, one day soon it’ll reach a point where it will destroy ecosystems on coastlines. Rising sea levels will undoubtedly have effects on the sea life as well, expect sudden changes in currents and ocean temperature which will have detrimental effects on sea plankton. Sea plankton are particularly important not just to whales but to human beings as well, they are responsible for providing almost half the oxygen that we breathe each year and they lie at the base of the food chain on which all other marine life depends (Prigg & Reuters, 2015, p.1).
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One important issue that still needs to be addressed is whether a possibility exists that we can find a way to secure the future of all forms of life on Earth with the seemingly unending destruction of their habitats at the hands of human beings. Although there are many laws that protect the rights of animals and their ecosystems like the endangered species act and many wildlife reserves across the continents, hundreds of animal and plant species face the threat of extinction still. One species that is facing the threat of extinction today is the great white shark. Great whites are considered the biggest predatory fish that live in the ocean, they are carnivorous and grow to be about 15 to 20 feet weighing more than 5,000 pounds (Bradford, 2014, p.1). Sharks are like the Earth’s living ancients; the first species of great white shark first came into existence over 16 million years ago and the first sharks roamed the oceans long before the dinosaurs. They are labeled the human devourer, so many people are led to believe that sharks are negative aspects to the environment and pose a great threat to us -which is the reason why it’s taking so long for people to act on conservation methods for the creatures- everyone wants to safeguard the cute, fuzzy creatures of Earth, but in reality we are the ones who pose the greater danger on sharks and their ecosystem. It is foolish to think of sharks as the bad guys for doing what comes naturally to them. For the first time in their 400 million years of evolutionary history, the very survival of sharks is threatened, over a hundred different kinds of sharks have been deemed as being globally endangered species. Sharks are majorly being hunted for their fins, teeth and jaws, poaching saw a major spike in the early 90s thanks to the growth of Asian economies in Japan, Taiwan and China as their ancestors used to prepare shark fin soup as delicacies in rituals, they couldn’t do it as much before because it was so expensive, but nowadays, millions of sharks are killed yearly simply for their fins. Shark finning is an inhumane process in which the fins of the shark are removed while the shark is alive, and the body is discarded in the ocean, left to die and slowly drown. The demand for fins is one of the greatest facing shark populations around the world, so many of them end up in the global fin trade every year. Although shark finning is deemed illegal in many countries, their fins continue to be bought and sold throughout the world. Worldwide great white populations have suffered significant losses because of excessive poaching and unregulated illegal trade over the past few decades, and to make matters worse, great whites are known to be slow breeders, they don’t grow very fast either and the age of maturity is around 15 human years before they can mate. Unfortunately, the effects of shark finning may not be so apparent from the surface, but the uninterrupted slaying of sharks will undoubtedly have dire consequences, some obscure and others obvious. If people drove around the forests of Earth capturing all the furry little animals only to dismember their limbs, leaving them to slowly die due to blood loss, the people of the world would most certainly shout with disgust and scorn, and yet the very same atrocities are right now being committed each and every day, except in this case it happens far out of sight and against a beast that many despise and fear. One case to consider as an example of the dangers of excessive shark poaching: Sharks manage the number of octopi by preying upon them and octopi rely on lobsters, the excess hunting of sharks will lead to the unstable rise of octopi populations which will make the number of lobsters in the sea slowly dwindle. By simply removing the apex predator -the shark- we destabilized the sensitive equilibrium and every species among the food chain’s lower echelon was negatively affected and the entire ecosystem suffered, including us since we also rely on lobsters as a food source “What improves a locality as the environment of one kind of organism, may spoil the environment of another” (Benson, 2000, p. 10). Countless horrors are being faced by sharks and their ecosystems, there are some -albeit modest- conservational efforts set in place, but even they’re not enough to save sharks. In very few parts of the world are sharks welcomed by locals and respected by swimmers, though the places in which they are feared and hunted down without remorse or restraints still vastly outnumber the areas of safety. There’s just this complete lack of concern when it comes to the preservation of these predators and unless international laws are formed and imposed, sharks will only continue to exist in the minds of others. No animal no matter how ferocious deserves to be treated the way great whites and other sharks are being treated today, and although shark fins are valuable, they are not the only valuable part of sharks that can be extorted. Sharkskin can be used as sandpaper for polishing, their liver oil is high in vitamin A which can be used to treat injuries and heal digestive and respiratory problems.
With seven billion people on the face of the planet, the natural world experiencing a decline, biodiversity is declining, it’s occurring. The nature of this universal impact that humans are having on the planet has led to the development of a term called “Anthropocene”. The Anthropocene builds upon geological eras like the Pliocene, Pleistocene and Miocene. It’s a deliberate play on the evolution of Earth over its history to a point in which it’s dominated by human activity. So, we are living in a different geological era. We humans, our decisions now, govern the future of our planet, it’s up to us to save it, we are a part of nature, biodiversity is nature, so in a way we are destroying ourselves by destroying biodiversity. We have the tools and the power, so it’s our duty to protect our planet and we have no right to tamper with it, we are a part of nature and did not create it, so we must be held accountable for causing it harm and take full responsibility to fix the damage that we’ve caused to it consciously “Cost-benefit also can be useful in assessing damages, allocating benefits and burdens, or determining remuneration or compensation for environmental harms to injured parties” (Warren, 2000, p.178). What will future generations think of us? Will they reflect back on the present in the same way as we reflect back on the era of slavery? Biodiversity is the most fundamental component of life on Earth, by destroying it we’d be dooming ourselves and all future generations to come.
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