On the Termination of Species: A Case for Biodiversity

“Visit at Biodiversity Park Sreekandapuram” picture by Manoj Karingamadathil

As the planet grows to acknowledge the environmental issues of climate change and global warming, emphasis on the rising temperatures, sea levels, and weather impacts on human civilization have been at the forefront of raising awareness. If nothing else, the historical trend of mankind’s development has indicated our collective sense of self-importance, centering the issue of climate change around the safety of our societies, and leaving issues such as ecological conservation by the wayside. The conservation of a wide variety of species (referred to as ‘biodiversity’), while increasingly under threat, seems to render itself an afterthought amid these concerns, leaving little contemplation for other species, even among more environmentally-minded policymakers. This sort of attitude can be attributed to a general misconception that only a relatively small amount of these species have been domesticated and deemed necessary for human benefit, with the nebulous majority being of no interest besides intellectual study and categorization. Contrary to this belief, however, scientific studies and international reports alike have deemed biodiversity as being crucial to human life. A flourishing, varied, and healthy global ecosystem, as fostered by human maintenance and protection, in turn, contributes to the prosperity of human rights.

Picture of Marine Biodiversity work shop Dolphin Nature Conservation Society by Visakha Patnam

To promote the protection of biodiversity or to argue for its benefits requires the establishing of more concrete, causal relationships between the variety of organisms and its effects on ecosystems in a broader sense. Of the estimated 8 million total species on this planet, we’ve barely scratched the surface with our cataloguing and studies, not to mention our consumption, production, and cultivation centering around an even smaller amount. Keeping this in mind, humanity’s responsibility for the protection of the vast remainder can seem like a selfless but naive pipe dream of intellectuals. However, studies have indicated a core component at the heart of the question of biodiversity: its value to ecosystems. The idea of an “ecosystem” is inherently complex in its nature as an ecological system, developed naturally over the course of millions of years. Food chains, nutritional distributions, populations, and resistance to external threats are all environmental processes intrinsically linked to one another, and dependent on the various native flora and fauna maintaining a delicate balancing act, oftentimes disrupted by society’s involvement. It’s the diversity of species which indicates the unknowable variety of functions each living (and non-living) component serves in the habitat. These specific roles, when taken as a whole, collaborate to determine and maintain the characteristics of its environment. In addition, the scientific community has reached a consensus on biodiversity loss being a direct cause for reduced efficiency in nutrient capture, productivity, and stability. Ecosystem integrity, stability, health, and equilibrium are upheld by the particular species which have been naturally developed and prosper in those conditions. 

For the dissatisfied pragmatists or those of practical mindsets, however, we should be quick to note that this biodiversity, which indisputably assists an ecosystem’s natural propensity to thrive unhindered, actually aids and assists humanity as well. For example, if one identifies a naturally diverse ecosystem as a healthier and more prosperous one, then it stands to reason that the flora of these environments would contribute more to the quality of air, water, and food for humans via reduction of pollutants, removal of greenhouse gasses, and increased nutritional value. And in a more conclusive manner, as the World Health Organization’s 2015 review Connecting Global Priorities: Biodiversity and Human Health identifies, coral reefs, the results of delicate marine ecological balance built up and maintained over millions of years, have reduced wave energy collisions with coastlines across the entire world by roughly 97%, protecting roughly a hundred million human lives in the process. It’s those very same coral reefs that are at threat of extinction due to ocean acidification‒ yet another consequence of anthropological climate change. Biodiversity doesn’t merely defend humanity against the destructive physical forces, but also the unseen microbial ones as well. For example, Thomas E. Lovejoy of the Smithsonian Institution illustrates the issue at hand with the Pacific Yew, a tree deemed “worthless” by humans until the discovery of “a powerful drug against ovarian, lung, and other cancers” in its bark: taxol. The South American tree Cinchona officinalis, whose bark carried an antimalarial quinine; the Madagascar rosy periwinkle Catharanthus roseus that existed as “irrelevant, traditional medicine” until its importance in treating leukemia & Hodgkin’s lymphoma; the fungus Penicillium citrinum that creates cholesterol-reducing drugs. These examples of specific species revealing blessings to humanity’s health and right to life should illustrate an alarming question: what else have we missed? Of the millions of species lost to time and humanity’s disregard for biodiversity, how many have contained similar treasures that could have propelled research and development in any number of fields? With these kinds of retroactive concerns in mind, their logical implications on our current and future conduct regarding biodiversity indicates that maintaining the longevity of native species and their environments, however inconsequential their endangerment may appear at the moment, could prove to be the difference between humanity’s safety and its demise.

Pacific Yew, a tree deemed “worthless” until the discovery of taxol, photo by Walter Siegmund

Biodiversity’s utility for humanity doesn’t stop at its defense for our basic human right to life, however. As the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment states: “Everyone in the world depends completely on Earth’s ecosystems and the services they provide, such as food, water, disease management, climate regulation, spiritual fulfilment, and aesthetic enjoyment.” To that end, the rights to freely practice one’s religion and maintain one’s culture should also be a key component of the argument for conservation: historical and/or spiritual importance placed upon specific species by indigenous communities demonstrate another incentive to preserve those threatened. These groups, often oppressed or suffering at the hands of industries or governments, often revolve around the core concerns of biodiversity when railing against abuses of their natural resources. 

Contrary to these perceptions, however, the importance of biodiversity need not be a pursuit that hinders growth in other fields. Take the bacterium of the Yellowstone hot springs, which retained enzymes that drove the polymerase chain reaction, spurring billions of dollars of economic activity. In an effort to extrapolate this example to a greater trend, “The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity”, or “TEEB”, is a UN-backed organization that has emphasized the economic value of pro-environmental policies & practices. In their 2009 report, their estimates for genetic resources derived from biodiverse ecosystems & specific species ranged from US$485 to $805 billion. In their summary of a cost perspective, they also laid out their findings: halving deforestation by 2030, while costing the United States nearly US$25.2 billion, would return benefits the equivalent of nearly US$3.2 trillion. In particular, as TEEB, BBC, and many other organizations & media sources continue to argue, these figures represent an economically “systematic undervaluation of ecosystem services”. When considering the bounty of natural resources that the major economies of the world enjoy, as well as the crucial role biological processes & products play in trade, the importance of environmental conservation seems to align with economic/technological progress, not against it. It stands to reason that, just as the spiritually-attuned find value in the ethereal and natural qualities of environmental wellness, the economically-prudent should likewise reconsider their biases and come to understand the material mistakes they make when they neglect the environment.

Coral reefs save hundreds of millions of human lives a year from coastal damages, image by N. Cantin/AIMS

The importance of re-orienting the global community’s opinion around biodiversity’s vital role in human rights and our welfare at large is not a novel departure: it reflects the United Nations’ Human Rights Council Office of the High Commissioner’s reports from years ago. In these international decrees, findings and results were cited and distributed for policymakers, leaders, and nations across the globe, and the messaging has been clear: biodiversity stands among the list of valuable, yet-quickly-diminishing natural resources our planet has granted humanity for our benefit geographically, medically, spiritually, and economically.