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December 05, 2016
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Biodiversity is beautiful

Last weekend’s Upper Delaware BioBlitz on a 63.5-acre wildlife preserve near Starlight, PA got us thinking about the value of biodiversity. This bioblitz was an inventory of as many species—animals, plants, birds, fish, reptiles, amphibians, insects, fungi and other life—as teams of biologists and volunteers could find and identify in 24 hours. [See Scott Rando’s feature article and photos on page 24.]

Species diversity, ecosystem diversity and genetic diversity are essential to the rich variety of life on this earth; all three of these are included under the definition of biodiversity. The Upper Delaware BioBlitz was most concerned with species diversity within this one particular ecosystem on the West Branch of the Delaware River near its confluence with the East Branch. What the biologists and volunteers found was an amazing community of living things.

There’s no question that billions of people the world over have benefited by using natural ecosystems to supply the products and services that have improved countless lives. There also is no question that this exploitation is now causing natural systems to change and to degrade, and that serious long-term plans for sustainable development and meaningful conservation are necessary if future generations are to enjoy the fruits of earth’s bounteous biological diversity and its valuable products. If allowed to continue unchecked such degradation eventually will place local economies and local societies at risk of becoming impaired as well.

One of the questions that sustainability poses is: how much of the earth’s natural resources and biodiversity we can “harvest” without irreparably damaging planet earth, our one and only home. Sadly, the world’s economic systems place insufficient value on long-term, sustainable outcomes, giving priority to short-term interests instead. And there’s another big challenge—changing human behavior to reduce the rate at which we consume nature’s products will be slow and difficult. (It is currently estimated that humans consume about 20% more of the planet’s natural and biological resources than the earth can continue to support.)

Consider what nature’s ecosystems supply us with: food, water, medicines, fiber to clothe ourselves, biomass for multiple purposes including material to build our houses and to heat some of our homes. These are life’s essentials, and so it seems clear that protecting biodiversity is in our self interest, not to mention the interests of millions of other living species that share our planet.

You might be tempted to think that the loss of a species here and there wouldn’t be noticed, but the truth is that we are not losing an occasional species. We are losing them at an alarming rate—at an estimated 50 to 100 times faster than the natural rate of extinction. The loss of individual species of a living, interrelated community impacts that system. This much we know from modern biological science.

Beyond science, however, there is another way to look at protecting biological diversity. Many religious faiths embrace the idea of stewardship, namely that we have been given the responsibility of stewards to protect the earth and its rich variety of life. Aboriginal and native peoples have long known about the interconnectedness that science reveals to us now. The spiritual path of these peoples recognized the oneness and harmony of all forms of life and also non-living forms (rocks, rivers, mountains, valleys, the moon and the sun. Where would life be without the sun?)

Feel free to make your own conclusion: whether you want to view the need to preserve biodiversity from the purely practical point of needing the goods and services derived from nature, or whether you embrace a deeper moral and spiritual responsibility, the action required is the same. We humans must staunch the primary causes of biodiversity loss—over-exploitation of natural resources, destruction of habitat, pollution and climate change.

It will take the will of individuals and also of society at large to make the necessary changes. It will take political will, too, and will require reassessing an economy that’s based on short-term results and on overconsumption of nature’s goods and services. There will be no short-term fixes. It will take long-term planning and sustained action to preserve biodiversity in all its beauty.