When an opportunity presented itself to join a voluntary Green Task Force at my place of work, I jumped at the chance. The group was to be divided up into smaller focus groups and I knew immediately which group I wanted to devote my time to – I wanted to be a biodiversity champion.
I was expecting to be disappointed, that the group would be oversubscribed. However, I was surprised to see that it was the groups like recycling and reducing plastic use that drew the biggest numbers. Later, it was reported that the biodiversity group was not seen as having the same potential impact and importance as the other groups. Still, I was delighted to have secured a place in the group.
Biodiversity, it seems, has a serious PR problem. This was eased considerably in my work context when the footage from camera traps was published and the meadow area this year brought a lot of positive attention. However, it was a shock realisation that, in spite of the popularity of wildlife documentaries, people just do not recognise it as a key issue. In fact, in terms of planetary boundaries biodiversity loss is one of two systems that are well beyond safe limits, actually eclipsing climate change as an issue for our planet. In reality, the two issues are interconnected- we need to tackle both urgently. Biodiversity helps tackle climate change and climate change causes biodiversity loss.
Getting back to the biodiversity PR problem for a minute, I think it stems from our over-reliance on our minds and on our ability to invent technological solutions. What is the difference between an animal in a cage and one in the wild? I think this question helps us to understand our thinking and there are many possible answers depending on perspective.
Often animals are caged for their protection – we can control their environment, keep away poachers, increase their life expectancy and assist in successful breeding. We can readily observe them and learn from them and use this knowledge to help others of their species. We can also readily provide abundant food and veterinary care. However, they are separated from their natural habitat and the whole range of life experiences that their wild counterparts would encounter and they are rarely with others of their kind in the same way as they would be naturally. Obviously human carers try very hard to replicate their natural lifestyles so that they can be happy and healthy and this post is certainly not judging such conservation efforts one way or the other. That is a different debate.
The bottom line here is, in my humble opinion, one of isolation. Instead of looking at animals as part of ecosystems, we treat them as separate entities. This is nowhere plainer than in our own isolation from our environment. We control the elements, by living in houses with heating and fresh water on tap. We render these houses sterile in a bid to keep out dirt and disease. We store food and we provide entertainment and experiences in place of outdoors adventures. To maintain this lifestyle requires a lot of resources – effort, energy, money etc. We are now advised to give young children vitamin D supplements, because we do not get enough from sunlight. We have issues with obesity due to inactivity and a disconnection from our bodies and, for example, our own hunger signals. We are perhaps more likely to be cued to eat by a TV advertisement than a grumbling stomach. As an aside, it appears that time outdoors may help to regulate appetite.
What does this have to do with biodiversity? In a nutshell, we are attempting to improve upon or even replace nature. Instead of recognising and appreciating the complexity of life, we narrow our focus to “desirable” attributes and to being able to control variables. We want the bits of nature that have value to us as a resource and not the messy, inconvenient, space-devouring, pesty, weedy bits. Even our gardens are manicured or even covered in gravel or artificial grass!
The problem with this is that it is entirely unsustainable. There is no built-in resilience and the control that we prize is an illusion – recent events have painfully demonstrated how we far we are from being immune to changes in nature. The lifestyles we have developed are demonstrably harmful to us and to our planet.
The solution? Apparently there is a pill for the many of the harms to humans. Back to biodiversity – many of those pills are derived from nature – salicylic acid, the active ingredient in aspirin, comes from the willow tree, for example. We can build flood defences to deal with the reduced drainage and produce endless pesticides, needed because we have killed the natural predators of the insects that eat our crops and we are beholden to artificial fertilisers because our soil quality is now alarmingly poor. The system we have designed is frighteningly slow to register and adapt to change – for instance, we have only relatively recently realised that pollinating insect populations are in dangerous decline and there is very little evidence of policy changes to address this.
Alternatively, we could take a holistic approach, which works with the balance of nature – where plant life provides flood defenses, where predators keep populations in check and so on. Evolution might be very gradual, but nature responds very quickly to opportunities – take a look at what happens with a bare patch of land or a human population in lockdown!
So, why does biodiversity matter? It matters because without the soil, and soil organisms, there are no thriving plants on the land; without the plants entire food chains collapse; without pollinators a huge number of our plants (including food crops) disappear – before that happens, many birds, bats and other animals lose an important source of food. Not all climates are suited to a particular plant or animal species and we are dependent on them for clean air, water (in the right places), food and our general wellbeing. Biodiversity matters because it is a part of that rapid response to change; it is how our planet supports life – not from a select cohort of “useful” species, but from a whole array of different organisms, perfectly adapted for their place and role. Our living world is a crucial part of the balance of our life- supporting planetary systems – it is interconnected in ways we do not fully understand. Diversity of life means resilience and adaptability – two qualities that we need now more than ever. Besides, Planet Earth is anything but bland and all the more miraculous for it. Variety is indeed the spice of Life.