On the International Day for Biological Diversity, we want to honor the intrinsic value of biodiversity—a fundamental recognition of the right of other species to share this planet with us. In these unprecedented times, we hope it’s becoming clear that having biologically diverse and healthy ecosystems is essential to our existence—tied into everything from our food supply and economy to disease prevention and mental health. As Defenders’ President and CEO Jamie Rappaport Clark is fond of saying, “So goes nature, so goes us,” and never has that phrase rung truer. Today, let’s pause and think about the importance of biodiversity and how it touches so many facets of human society.
Protecting Human Health
COVID-19 arose from human-wildlife contact—maybe starting with bats, maybe pangolins—and most likely from a live wildlife market. Today, we’re approaching 1.5 million cases and nearly 100,000 deaths across the U.S., and many more worldwide, arising from a careless lack of appreciation and respect for other species. COVID-19 is not the only challenge we face with zoonotic diseases: Research has found that almost half of all emerging infectious diseases come from wildlife, including ones we’re already familiar with like Ebola and SARS. Lyme disease has had its spread enhanced by increased habitat fragmentation. Other research has drawn a clear link between habitat destruction and animal diseases or zoonotics, highlighting the amazing role intact habitat plays in buffering disease introduction and spread. And while we’re currently focused on the human implications of the novel coronavirus, we also have to remember that we can spread diseases to wildlife—or facilitate the spread of wildlife diseases—in grave ways, such as the threat COVID-19 may create for tigers, great apes or bats already threatened by white-nose syndrome.
Many people are citing getting outside, whether for a walk around the block, a bike ride or a birdwatching adventure, as the main way they are staying sane during this pandemic. Decades of research supports the idea that more exposure to nature leads to improved well-being, whether you’re able to see a park from your office window or you paddle down a river daily. For example, higher neighborhood vegetation cover and bird abundance are associated with lower prevalence of depression, anxiety and stress. Further, mental health is significantly improved if your neighborhood has 20% to 30% vegetation cover—yay for trees and shrubs!
Biodiversity is important for treating and healing our illnesses as well. Many plants, animals and fungi are used as medicine, essential vitamins, painkillers and more. For centuries, indigenous communities around the world have recognized the important medicinal properties of local biodiversity. Today, nature is recognized as a direct source of and an inspiration for modern medicines, whether old standards like aspirin—derived from willow trees—to advanced cancer treatments like trabectedin—derived from a sea squirt. Letting species slip away unnoticed means risking the loss of essential treatments and cures for human diseases.
Freshwater wetlands and their diverse plant life serve as riparian buffers that can improve water quality by filtering out livestock manure and bacteria in streams. Soil biodiversity improves water-use efficiency by crops, limits agricultural runoff and other contaminates and filters pathogens, preventing them from getting in the water. Air pollution, associated with lung cancer and premature mortality from respiratory complications, is reduced by an abundance of diverse plant life filtering the air.
Biodiversity’s connection to the economy may not seem as evident, but globally, it plays an immeasurable role in food supply, forestry, agriculture and outdoor recreation industries. For example, ecosystem services—the products and processes that nature provides to society—is estimated to total almost $9 TRILLION per year just for the U.S. and Canada. (No, that’s not a typo, it is almost half of the U.S. gross domestic product for 2018: $20.5 trillion.) Here are a couple of key sectors linked directly to biodiversity.
Food security has an outsized impact on an economy and declining biodiversity will have an outsized impact on that security. About 100 million metric tons of aquatic life, including fish, mollusks and crustaceans are taken from the wild every year to provide sustenance to people. Pollinators are essential for crop output valued at between $235 billion and $577 billion per year. Nature provides a key source of new foods, such as the well-known examples of tomatoes and corn from their wild relatives, and the threats to biodiversity mean the risk of losing raw material that can be used to breed better cultivars to feed society.
It is estimated that over $800 billion a year is spent on outdoor recreation in the U.S., with Americans enjoying public lands and waters, exploring nature, seeking adventure and finding wildlife. More than 20 million Americans report taking birding trips and birdwatching alone has an economic benefit of $41 billion dollars. Globally, the New Big 5 initiative aims to do away with the old big five of wildlife – based on the toughest animals to shoot and kill – and create a new selection based on photography, not hunting. Without diverse lands and waters hosting mountain biking, surfing, skiing, rafting and hiking and diverse wildlife species calling us to find and photograph them, we would lose the enjoyment of the outdoors in America.
Climate change is one of the most pressing yet under-addressed concerns for the planet, but while emissions are decreasing in some areas that are shut down as people shelter in place, the planet is still warming. A focus on biodiversity conservation—in particular, protecting natural areas and their ecosystems—is essential to addressing the climate crisis. Protecting land can allow species and habitats to adapt and move as the climate changes, and carbon storage can mitigate climate change—with higher diversity driving greater stores. These stores range from the Arctic, where permafrost stores incredible amounts of methane, to tropical and subtropical regions, where rainforests store carbon, to oceans across the globe, where plankton are vast carbon stores and coastal habitats of mangroves and beach grasses store carbon and provide natural buffers for increasingly frequent and intense storms.
As our population and human footprint increases, we are encroaching on wild spaces. But wildlife need room to roam away from humans and enough prey to eat to avoid conflicts with humans and reduce threats to our well-being (physical safety, mental health, economic stability) and property (pets, livestock, crops). Keystone species, like far-ranging wolves, regulate ecosystems by keeping species that would otherwise overgraze an ecosystem—like elk and deer—at more sustainable numbers, which in turn provide other ecosystem benefits like improving water quality and soil health—and lessens the chance of deer-vehicle collisions.
Protecting biodiverse habitats from human encroachment helps reduce the risk of damaging, high-intensity wildfires. Communities that expand and build closer to forests and grasslands can fuel fires that might otherwise have burned out on their own. At a time when changing climate is exacerbating the risks of wildfire conditions over many parts of the country, taking steps to reduce the risks of human encroachment is essential for maintaining our relationship with nature.
As the COVID-19 pandemic has many of us reevaluating our connection to nature and wondering what the future will bring, one thing is certain: We are completely dependent on healthy and vibrant ecosystems for our health, water, food, medicines and much, much more. Protecting nature is not an amenity, but essential to our well-being.