Campus Sustainability Office

Biodiversity Loss

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Renowned biologist Edward O. Wilson has stated that the current extinction episode is the human-induced environmental crisis that our descendants will be least likely to forgive us for (Wilson 1984).  And who could blame them? It is an unfortunate legacy to pass on when we could have done much better. Although natural processes can cause species to either adapt or go extinct, human activity within recent years has greatly exasterbated the issue. Consider the Passenger PigeonOnce so abundant that flocks would block out the sun for hours as they migrated, these North American birds (and the second largest flocking animal in the world) were hunted to extinction by 1914. We are currently committing thousands of species per year to extinction, a rate at least 100 (and perhaps 1,000) times the background or baseline rate from 10,000 years ago. We are now in the midst of the sixth extinction of geological time. The last great extinction involved the demise of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Three important points are worth noting here:

  1. the current extinction spasm is the only one with a biotic cause, which of course is us
  2. we cannot fix or undo extinctions -- they are forever (Prance and Elias 1977)
  3. we cannot affect past extinctions and should not feel guilty for them, but we do have a responsibility to deal with the consequences of the actions-our actions-that are causing the current extinction episode

Why should we care about extinctions? On purely practical grounds, biological organisms are important resources for  food, medicines, shelter, energy, biotechnology (biomimicry - copying organisms in engineering and design), spirituality, and aesthetics. And yet, we have only documented (much less studied) 2 million of the 30 million non-microbial species believed to exist. (Check out E.O. Wilson's Encyclopedia of Life to view one of the most comprehensive undertakings to date of compiling and allowing access to the wonders of life on Earth.) The potential to derive greater benefits may be tremendous. For example, fewer than 10 percent of Amazonia’s flowering plant species have been examined for their chemical compounds, some of which likely would have applications in food, medicine, or industry. In 1988, less than 6% of Brazilian Amazonia had been cleared; today the number is near 20%.  Other regions are in even worse shape. In Haiti, for example, less than 4% of land is covered by forest, essentially none of it original forest cover (FAO 2010, Haggerty 1989). In Madagascar little more than 5% of the country’s primary forest remains (FAO 2010). How many species were lost in these tropical environments and at what cost and for what benefit? With the high percentage of micro-endemic species in the rainforests and island habitats of the world, many species have surely been lost without being acknowledged, documented, or studied by Western science.

(Learning to protect biodiversity by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO))

Yet, as alarming as species extinctions are, they only begin to tell the whole story of biological impoverishment. Huge genetic and ecological casualties occur daily, and the impact such losses will have on the evolutionary processes affecting future biodiversity are incomprehensible.

In less obvious terms, many believe that nature makes us human: we learn from nature, we love and revere it, we exist in and depend on nature. We are deeply a part of our environment and it is a part of us. Wilson put it right in his 1984 book Biophilia where he argued that as living beings we are deeply connected to, and dependent on life’s web in ways that we cannot fully understand. Having evolved in this world, our fitness and quality of life will be compromised if it becomes biologically impoverished and ecologically dysfunctional. He hoped that “…as biological knowledge grows the ethic will shift fundamentally so that everywhere … the fauna and flora of a country will be thought part of the national heritage as important as its art, [and] its language” (Wilson 1984:145).

This is where education must make the case. It is incumbent upon us to educate an aware and concerned citizenry that can act intentionally in the maintenance of biodiversity and the life-supporting processes of Earth’s amazing ecosphere.

For some, the ethic has shifted with technology. There are those that now believe we could and should use genetic engineering to take DNA from preserved specimens (in museums or frozen in the arctic) and combine it with surrogate parents in contemporary species to bring extinct species back to life. Does this mean Jurassic World is a possibility? Likely not. While there are many biological hurdles to overcome, there are challenging moral implications as well. Check out one opinion in this video:


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