and nowhere is that truer or more important than in the natural world. Biodiversity is the key to a balanced, healthy ecosystem and is an absolutely fundamental part of the Earth’s life support system. Why then does it appear that we humans are doing the best we can to destroy species and habitats at what is becoming a terrifying rate?
Many scientists believe we are now experiencing what is being called a sixth mass extinction, with species disappearing at an unprecedented rate. Although a certain amount of extinction is a natural process, the Center for Biological Diversity states that we are now losing species at a rate 1000 to 10,000 times the background rate, a truly alarming figure that paints a frightening picture of a near future world where we have lost 30-50% of the species on the planet¹.
So what would a planet so drastically reduced in animal and plant life look like? What difference would it make to us and the Earth if biodiversity was lowered by such an amount? First of all, everything from our atmosphere to our water supply would be significantly altered. Every habitat exists in a state of balance and which is maintained by having a diverse range of species living there. Any sudden change to that equilibrium, such as through human activities like mining, affects the balance, with potentially disastrous effects.
Rainforests for example are one of the most diverse environments on the planet and provide a number of vital ecosystem services such as regulating climate through photosynthesis and the formation of soil². Wetlands act like reservoirs in dry periods, also helping to purify and filter water, while coral reefs take the role of barriers, protecting the land from erosion. However, if the diversity of species in any of these environments is reduced, they can no longer play their part effectively and, thanks to the way all earth systems are interconnected, everywhere suffers.
Without the trees of the rainforest to regulate the carbon cycle, there would be no humans or animals, as the air would be unsuitable to breathe. Soil would be lifeless, full of harmful chemicals that trees usually filter, while drought would soon follow due to the prevailing arid conditions. Without coral reefs, millions would go hungry as reefs form nurseries for much of the world’s fisheries, while coasts the world over would be devastated by erosion and flooding, with human inhabitants displaced and homeless³.
Food security will be significantly impacted if biodiversity continues to suffer. As the FAO observed, the loss of biodiversity has left many production systems undernourished, vulnerable and reliant on external sources for supply. Such a loss limits our future ability to respond and adapt to such challenges as increased urbanization, climate change and resource availability. Similarly, the UN reported that it was crucial to maintain genetic diversity in crop species in order to protect against droughts, pests and diseases, something which is being achieved through the use of gene banks, such as the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway.
Much of our medicine comes from natural sources, with researchers venturing further and further into species rich rainforests in search of the next miracle cure⁴. Less than 10 per cent of plant species have been investigated for their medicinal properties but if deforestation for timber and mining continue, then lifesaving resources could well be lost forever, before we even understand their full potential.
Biodiversity also contributes much to what we as a species actually are, even without considering the services it provides which keep us alive. As individuals, we should be able to appreciate the beauty of a varied environment, filled with plants, trees and wildlife. Try imagining a world with just one species of tree in your local forest, or where water has become so polluted from factories that the fish are all dead and ask yourself if that is a world in which you want to live.