"There's more to talk about here." That's the statement I left off with in my last post, and it's time to prove it. It's all well and good to say that animals are going extinct, and that it's not good for us, but why? Isn't less competition, especially in nature, good for the animals that survive? Isn't it good for us? This may be the case for a natural rate of extinction, but for one ballooned to the proportions we've created, it's most certainly not. Because once the rate of extinction for species goes up to what it is now, we're no longer talking about the loss of a few dozen: we're talking about hundreds of thousands. We're not talking about extinction anymore, we're talking about biodiversity loss.
What is biodiversity loss?
Put simply, biodiversity is variation between organisms. Our Earth is very biodiverse, meaning that there are many different types, or species, of organisms. It's estimated that around 5 to 50 million species exist on Earth, with only 1.8 million being documented. Obviously, there's quite a bit of variation here, as should be expected with estimates of very large numbers. Nonetheless, no matter which end of the spectrum you choose to view, one fact remains evident: the Earth is very, very biodiverse.
And that's exactly what we're starting to lose. Again, estimates have shown that we've lost about HALF of the animals that lived on Earth since the 1970s. Of course, numbers and estimates of this scale are not likely to be 100% accurate, but losses on this scale are logical, especially considering the increase in human impact over those fifty years. 5-50 million is a huge range, with some huge numbers, but with hundreds of species being lost nearly every single day, and the rate of extinction 1000 times above the normal rate, these numbers won't last forever.
Does it even matter?
But this still doesn't answer the question I posed at the beginning of this post. Doesn't the extinction of species benefit the ones that survive? And since we're surviving, aren't we benefiting? Well, maybe on a small scale, but with a scope like this, we won't be benefiting for long.
Before getting into the specifics, let's think it through logically: every organism has a job, a specific "niche" if you will. The variation between species helps to fill these jobs, and typically, once completed, they benefit other organisms, who in turn do their jobs, benefiting other organisms as well. This is nature boiled down to its most basic form, there's obviously more nuance and complication. But, nonetheless, every organism has a specific task they complete. Some are more helpful to us than others. But, when species start to die off, we lose the organisms that once filled those positions. Without these jobs being completed, other organisms cannot get the benefits, or necessities, they used to have. The same goes for us.
That's it put very simply. Now, let's take a look at some of the specific ways biodiversity loss affects us as humans.
Humans and biodiversity
Food- it's well known that we get most of our food from a small number of plants. About 80% of our food supply comes from 20 of these plants. However, the remaining 20% (which is still quite a lot!) comes from over 40,000 different species, many of which are under threat from biodiversity loss. Some of these plants are vital to native communities, and without them, populations start to dwindle.
Other Resources- clothing, shelter, and all that we use to live normal lives come from a diverse range of organisms. If there were only a few dozen species of tree, for instance, we wouldn't have a range in lumber flexibility or composition, meaning that wood could only be used for a fraction of the purposes we utilize it for today. The same goes for any other kind of material we use, like the ones needed to make clothing. It wouldn't be nearly as comfortable if the only material/chemical we used to make them was cotton.
Medicine- where does our medicine come from? Most, if not all of the time, it comes from unique, biodiverse plants in rainforests. As these species continue to be lost, they could be taking with them the key to solving some of our world's most terrible diseases. The truth is, we don't know what's out there, and while we may not know exactly what we're losing, chances are we've already lost something that could have done a whole lot of good. A cure for cancer? ALS? Alzheimers? All of them could have been lost, forever, because of these species' disappearance.
Ecosystem balance- all organisms rely on each other to survive, most of the time for food. As species are lost, so too is the food that other organisms rely on. Once those organisms die off, so too do the ones that used to feed on THEM, and the cycle keeps going, and going, and going, until entire ecosystems are destroyed. Once this happens, OUR food supply takes a hit too.
Culture- biodiversity inspires us. Wouldn't it be boring to only see one species of bird, or tree, or small animal every single day? Whether we recognize it or not, this variation is a key part of what makes our connection to the environment special. Nature has been responsible for great art, music, and inspiration. It can't do that without biodiversity.
Pollination- countless species of insects are important for the pollination of plants, some that make a lot of OUR food. As the amount of these insects and their species starts to dwindle, so too does the amount of plants able to produce food for us and other animals.
It doesn't look good. Species are dying, and taking entire ecosystems with them. Acres of land are being lost, just because a few species were wiped out. With current extinction rates akin to and even higher than the disappearance of the dinosaurs, it's no doubt that we as humans have begun the sixth extinction. What's next? As we begin to lose more and more species, even the more common ones may start to disappear. And after them? Well, we'll be quick to follow.
But it's not all doom and gloom. There are many things that we, even as individual people, can do to drastically improve the condition of endangered animals, which is what I'll be talking about next week. But, if we don't act soon, if we don't stop this problem in its tracks, then it will quickly become another serious threat to the survival of humanity. What does it take to solve? Only a bit of courage and effort.
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