Why Biodiversity?

January 30, 2023

Last year I was invited to be interviewed for a new podcast called Here to (T)here on the topic of biodiversity loss. The focus of our discussion was around the importance of biodiversity and how this sometimes ambiguous term relates to our ecology and our survival. Here I define biodiversity simply as the richness and abundance of organisms assembled in a community across a landscape. The host was interested in the problems with current economic reactions to ecological catastrophes and how a participatory society might offer an alternative response. Unfortunately, it shouldn’t be controversial to prioritize sustainability and survival of our species in light of the cliff we are approaching with climate change and rapidly depleting resources.

But why should we care about biodiversity? Because we care about sustainability, which means we care about the health of our families, communities, and future generations. We care about availability of clean water, nutritious food, and habitats for us to live and play. And we care about diversity of life not only because we believe life has intrinsic value and purpose, but because living and decomposing organisms provide known and unknown functions that benefit ecosystems (some call them ecosystem services). The mangrove forests along our coastal marshes provide protective buffers to rising waters from storm surges. The fungi in our soils absorb and break down toxins like heavy metals, chemicals, and even radiation. Predators like cougars and wolves prevent stream bank erosion by controlling the herbivores that, if left unchecked by predators, will overgraze soil-stabilizing plants. Even mosquitoes have roles beyond transmitting diseases; the male mosquitoes never bite but drink nectar and move pollen in flowering plants. We care about the services that an ecosystem provides through the functions of its diverse community members. We therefore value sustaining an ecosystem that functions for our long-term survival just as we value an economy and society that functions for the well-being of all.

Loss of biodiversity occurs when populations of organisms diminish to such low abundance that they cannot recover. The rarest and most specialized organisms are the most at risk of extinction as their abundance and thus their genetic diversity diminishes, like with the Florida Panther, where there isn’t a diverse enough gene pool to rescue the population from genetic disorders due to inbreeding. Ecosystems and the community membership of different organisms can change and usually do, but the rate of species loss we are witnessing is far quicker than the fossil record indicates as typical or background loss of biodiversity. Instead the rate of biodiversity loss suggests a pattern more like a mass extinction event.

The causes of biodiversity loss are not controversial: greenhouse gasses from fossil fuels and livestock production, pollution from industrial waste, fertilizer runoff, oil spills, and gas leaks, desirable habitat transformed into housing developments, agriculture and livestock fields, and impounded rivers into reservoirs, irresponsible stewardship of finite resources, and unintentional transfer of exotic plants and animals that can disrupt ecosystems and economies; all of these examples are economic externalities under capitalism and markets as well as command economies.

Of course there is cynicism in how the guilty industries and their contracted scientists absolve themselves of blame and distract the affected from very real threats to sustainability. But there are also many well-intentioned public and private organizations working tirelessly to mitigate these problems. If those that care about sustainability and biodiversity have the knowledge and means to mitigate losses, then what are the mainstream answers to these problems? Do these solutions reverse our fall to catastrophe or simply slow the descent?

Some mainstream solutions advocate stakeholder (instead of shareholder) capitalism combined with regulatory policy to solve our problems. The claim is that value can be achieved not just for the consumer and the shareholder, but for the community and the planet. This runs counter to current shareholder-focused, neoliberal economics, where stakeholders are ignored due to non-shareholders lacking economic standing and the environment lacking legal standing. With the conflicting interests of stakeholders ultimately biased towards maximizing shareholder profits, the market-driven trend is to keep business as usual with profits and decision-making to the same sectors that provide the problems in the first place. Under current practices, there is little debate whether we prioritize the value of sustainability; the discussion instead is how to keep the plane in nosedive as long as possible without acknowledging the impending ground.

Too much carbon in the air? Monetize it in the market. Trade carbon offsets and usage like commodities and stocks. And continue subsidizing fossil fuel extraction above all.

Drinking water contaminated? Allow the polluting chemical industry to write the regulations for themselves. Then put freshwater sources like springs in the hands of food conglomerates like Nestlé.

Too much vegetation and algae in your lake or pond? Keep dumping fertilizers on green deserts and single-crop agriculture fields that drain into the water, and pay a company to spray herbicides multiple times a year.

Not enough habitat for endangered plants and animals? Create artificial habitats and preserves so that we can still build that single-family, mini-mansion neighborhood in the prime real estate. Then charge a fee to visit, fish, or hunt in the artificial habitats, which are either owned by private companies or considered a corporate tax rebate after donating the habitat to the public.

Despite the intentions of current economic practices and environmental policies, they violate the value of self-management, that is your access to making decisions proportional to the amount you are affected by those decisions, which is crucial to empowering those most affected by biodiversity loss. The public and private sectors create barriers to decision-making using the current economic and political institutions. Fundraisers for politicians and advocacy groups will gladly take donations for well-intended causes, which basically means give them your support and they will handle the tough decisions. At the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP15) to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity that just concluded in Montreal, attendees and reporters celebrated the inclusion of Indigenous, Tribal, and First Nation representation at the meeting as if it was this gift to society from the policy-makers instead of a victory from the protests for Indigenous Rights during the convention. While little if any mention was made of economic policy changes or condemnation of the previous policy of Indigenous exclusion, the victory of Indigenous protesters is not to be overlooked; they overcame the disempowerment and atomization that much of the excluded majority feels and that keeps them from just voting for their survival let alone organizing and contesting. In the words of Greta Thunberg at the protest against creation of future coal mines in Lutzerath, Germany, “when governments and corporations are destroying the environment and putting people at risk, the people step up.”

Why should we get more people to participate in environmental decisions that affect them, and more importantly, how can we do this? This is a reasonable response someone might have to the idea of including more voices in decision making, especially in environmental policy. Are we afraid of people making uninformed decisions that would do further harm to our environments and our health? But then don’t we already have that problem now with market allocation? Why should we bother raising awareness of sustainable practices if the people making the decisions aren’t listening? Is it in our best interests to rely on gatekeepers of decision-making in governments, boards of directors, and academia because they have more access to knowledge and empowering tasks? Why can’t ecological indicators be just as important as economic indicators when someone buys a home, travels abroad, or visits a grocer. If we value the potential of a child in our family just as a child from another country, or value the liberation of co-workers just as workers in another industry, can we likewise value the cleanliness of our water just as the water from another continent?

I don’t propose to know the best “hows” of getting more people to participate or to include ecological indicators into prices. Presumptive ecological value could be applied under the ecological precautionary principle due to the fact that we do not understand or know all ecosystem functions and services. Obviously we can’t cease to function in our economy and society due to never utilizing natural resources. People will decide what is sustainably harvested and extracted, but with the understanding and consideration of our ecological limits to survival. How we do this will need to balance our needs for survival above subsistence levels while working less and sharing our collective resources.

I was invited to return for a follow-up panel discussion for the same podcast episode. The panelists were asked what systemic changes and practical steps are needed to address biodiversity loss. After providing the rationale for a vision of participatory society, I explained how we need to work on issues now with the aim of reaching that vision later. In other words, we aren’t getting the societal change we need in time to stop the current trend towards multiple catastrophic tipping points in climate change and biodiversity loss. Therefore we need timely reforms to our current institutions, and not just modest reforms that promote the same institutions, but vision-focused, “non-reformist” reforms that lay foundations for new institutions.

A flexible strategy with the goal of winning non-reformist reforms has the most potential for reaching the society we envision. Modest reforms like carbon trading and offsets simply delay solving the emissions problem and promote the institutions we want to replace such as markets and capitalism. Instead, redistributing defense budgets to investments in green infrastructure, research, and education would be non-reformist in reducing militarism and promoting sustainability. A goal of promoting social and environmental justice in education curricula would lay a foundation of solidarity and sustainability for future generations by teaching not just history of systemic racism, sexism, and imperialism, but also ecological principles along with history of Indigenous heritage and culture in public schools. We could push for infrastructure changes that curtail personal vehicles by fighting for reforms that incentivize investment in mass transit research, design, and construction. We could nationalize the energy and agriculture sectors completely and replace boards of directors and owners with neighborhood and worker representatives from the community and agriculture and energy sectors. This would be a substantial achievement towards eliminating capitalism’s influence on energy and food production as well as replacing hierarchical state and corporate control of resource distribution. We would likewise need to retrain an entire industry of workers towards green energy production and sustainable agriculture while creating strong unions in these green sectors and providing retirement for those workers that don’t want to learn new skills.

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And what is there to do when these reforms fail to pass (or even be brought to a vote) in the institutions we are provided? We aren’t going to get far with current hierarchical institutions that create barriers to sustainability through corporate influence in policies and prioritization of profits. Reliance on government institutions, non-profits, politicians, and corporations is not a rational strategy to avoid our immediate ecological catastrophe. We should encourage community and worker empowerment to fight for new institutions where decisions are made by those proportionally affected. This means those in privileged positions in the sciences must share their research with the community and not shy from denouncing capitalism, corporatism, and hierarchies of power in private and public sectors. They must also risk their privileged positions; they must strike, boycott, protest, write, call, speak, demand, organize, and repeat as if the world depends on it.

The task at hand is not easy. There are people with more resources and institutional power who want to maintain the status quo even if it is harmful to their own interests. Yet, we are witnessing the very real threats to our survival that will likely worsen if we stay the current course. These realities will be more difficult to ignore as we approach each new tipping point towards ecological collapse. Ultimately, the Earth will survive after the sixth mass extinction event, but it will do so without us unless we care enough to change.


Teaser photo credit: A juvenile Florida panther. By U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southeast Region – Florida pantherUploaded by AlbertHerring, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=60684459

Ian Pfingsten

Ian is a Botanist with the Nonindigenous Aquatic Species Program in Gainesville, FL.

Tags: biodiversity crisis, building resilient societies, sixth great extinction