What is Biodiversity and Why is it Important?

Most of the highly developed spaces that human beings create and inhabit are not exhibit biodiversity: large industrial farms, sprawling lawns, concrete-covered city blocks. When we go outside, in nature, we see examples of biodiversity and that is one reason that natural spaces are so valuable; they demonstrate to us a functioning, healthy ecosystem where many organisms live together in a complex chain of being. This is biodiversity.

Biodiversity is a general indicator of the health of an ecosystem. Climate plays a factor, in that life in a particular ecosystem evolves based on feedback from that ecosystem. Is there enough habitat to support a population, enough available food? Particular adaptations to environmental factors will encourage the survival of that species. Large-scale disruptions impact existing life, like the handful of mass extinction events that have transpired during life’s history on this planet. Human development has had far-reaching consequences on ecosystems, which have led to not only the denuding of rich habitats, but the extinction of numerous sprecies. It’s a process that, in the span of total human history, we are only beginning to understand. Which is disturbing when you consider the growing collective impacts of energy production like the extraction and burning of fossil fuels, the prevalence of sprawling metropolitan areas and car use. Human beings have produced enough material that will accumulate in geological records, a present-day period dubbed “the Holocene Epoch.” “The Holocene Extinction” refers to the life which has gone extinct since the rise of prevalent human culture on Earth.

Biodiversity, since it alludes to ecosystem health, can be beneficial for human beings. As posited by anthropologist Marshall Sahlins, early hunter-gatherers (the type of societies that humans have lived in for the mass majority of their time on this planet), were dependent on their natural environment, but he characterized this relationship as “original affluence.” A healthy ecosystem supports life. Understanding how that ecosystem works and fitting within its overall design is a way to achieve a plenty that is divorced from modern notions of material production and consumerist acquisition.

Or, if that’s a little too utopian for you, healthy ecosystems with maintain healthy air, water and achieve beneficial carbon sequestration. Something that would benefit everyone living and that our current mode of living has dwindling supplies of.

Biodiversity also has had great impacts on agriculture, as cultivars have been tailored with genetics that give them the necessary traits to thrive in a given ecosystem. Bees, which pollinate much of our food supply, are extremely important and are now starting to suffer the consequences of their increasing deployment in harsh, homogenous orchards and fields. Their growing susceptibility to diseases and parasites, as well as “work-related” environmental stress such as malnutrition and exposure to pesticides, are reasons posited for colony collapse disorder, which has decimated bee populations worldwide. Although the exact causes are still being determined, all the aforementioned factors are elements of biodiversity. If the cause of this disorder is collective factors, then an improperly-maintained and imbalanced environment to support their lives is to blame.

It’s easy to cast blame when discussing the loss of biodiversity that has come with human development. There’s enough to go around. It’s another thing entirely to foster the respect and care for it that would lead to lasting, transformative change. In our increasingly industrialized, segmented lives, we lose the ability to appreciate things we may have never even known. But if biodiversity is correlated with the health of organisms (and humans certainly fall within that definition), learning to promote it should work to the benefit of all.

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