By Donella Meadows
–March 9, 1989–
Most of us have grasped the idea that there’s a hole in the sky over the South Pole that could give us skin cancer. We are beginning to understand that a global warming could inundate Miami Beach and make New York even more unbearable in summer. There is another environmental problem, however, that doesn’t have a catchy name like “ozone hole” or “greenhouse effect”, and that hasn’t yet entered the public consciousness. It’s the loss of biodiversity.
Biodiversity sounds like it has to do with pandas and tigers and tropical rainforests. It does, but it’s bigger than those, bigger than a single species or even a single ecosystem. It’s the whole, all of life, the microscopic creepy-crawlies as well as the elephants and condors. It’s all the habitats, beautiful or not, that support life — the tundra, prairie, and swamp as well as the tropical forest.
Why care about tundras and swamps? There’s one good reason — self-interest. Preserving biodiversity is not something to do out of the kindness of our hearts, to express our fondness for fuzzy creatures on Sunday mornings when we happen to feel virtuous. It’s something to do to maintain the many forms of life we eat and use, and to maintain ourselves.
How would you like the job of pollinating all trillion or so apple blossoms in New York State some sunny afternoon in late May? It’s conceivable, maybe, that you could invent a machine to do it, but inconceivable that the machine could work as efficiently, elegantly, and cheaply as the honeybee, much less make honey.
Suppose you were assigned to turn every bit of dead organic matter, from fallen leaves to urban garbage to road kills, into nutrients that feed new life. Even if you knew how, what would it cost? Uncountable numbers of bacteria, molds, mites, and worms do it for free. If they ever stopped, all life would stop. We would not last long if green plants stopped turning our exhaled carbon dioxide back into oxygen. The plants would not last long if a few beneficent kinds of soil bacteria stopped turning nitrogen from the air into fertilizer.
Human reckoning cannot put a value on the services performed for us by the millions of species of life on earth. In addition to pollination and recycling, these services include flood control, drought prevention, pest control, temperature regulation, and maintenance of the world’s most valuable library — the genes of all living organisms — a library we are just learning to read.
Another thing we are just learning is that both the genetic library and the ecosystem’s services depend on the integrity of the entire biological world. All species fit together in an intricate, interdependent, self-sustaining whole. Rips in the biological fabric tend to run. Gaps cause things to fall apart in unexpected ways.
For example, attempts to replant acacia trees in the Sahel have failed, because the degraded soil has lost a bacterium called rhizobium, without which acacia trees can’t grow. Songbirds that eat summer insects in North America are declining because of deforestation in their Central American wintering grounds. European forests are more vulnerable to acid rain than American forests, because they are human-managed single-species plantations rather than natural mixtures of many species forming an interknit, resilient system.
Biodiversity cannot be maintained by protecting a few favorite species in a zoo. Nor by preserving a few greenbelts or even large national parks. Biodiversity can maintain itself, however, without human attention or expense, without zookeepers, park rangers, foresters, or refrigerated gene banks. All it needs is to be left alone.
It is not being left alone, of course, which is why biological impoverishment has become a problem of global dimensions. There is hardly a place left on earth where people do not log, pave, spray, drain, flood, graze, fish, plow, burn, drill, spill, or dump.
Biologist Paul Ehrlich estimates that human beings usurp, directly or indirectly, about 40 percent of each year’s total biological production (and our population is on its way to another doubling in 40 years). There is no biome, with the possible exception of the deep ocean, that we are not degrading. In poor countries biodiversity is being nickeled and dimed to death; in rich countries it is being billion-dollared to death.
To provide their priceless service to us the honeybees ask only that we stop saturating the landscape with poisons, stop paving the meadows and verges where bee-food grows, and leave them enough honey to get through the winter.
To maintain our planet and our lives, the other species have similar requests, all of which add up to: Control yourselves. Control your numbers. Control your greed. See yourselves as what you are, part of an interdependent biological community, the most intelligent part, though you don’t often act that way. Act that way. Do so either out of a moral respect for something wonderful that you did not create and do not understand, or out of a practical interest in your own survival.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1989