A question that scientists, conservationists, resource managers, naturalists and your average human comes across with surprising regularity is why does biodiversity matter?
What is the point of conserving such a diverse array of organisms? Why do we need five different types of beetle in this canyon? Who cares if a species of mountain orchid goes extinct? Why should I care that the population of bull trout in that drainage is about to disappear? It is an innately fundamental question;why preserve natural life?
For many people living in urban environments, understanding why the sixth mass extinction matters to them can be a challenge. One reason might be that wildlife is often what you observe on tv while in an air-conditioned living room, from the comfort of a couch. The flora that composes forests, marine, and coastal ecosystems are aesthetically pleasing, but mostly just provide good backdrops for recreational activities and selfies. Microbes, which populate every nook, cranny, and crevice of our planet are often only brought to mind when a bathroom sign reminds you to wash your hands. Very rarely though do we stop to evaluate the incredible natural services that allow the world to go round.
The air we breathe here in eastern Washington is supported by thousands of grasses, shrubs, trees and forbs photosynthesizing under the punishing sun. The dense hardwood forests that store carbon dioxide wouldn’t be effective if it weren’t for the hoards of small mammals, birds, insects, and reptiles that spread seeds. Fungi have been utilized in countless medications, from penicillin to treatments for cancer. There is a whole host of species that are necessary to produce the crops that are the crux of our global food system, lead to crucial discoveries in medicine, and provide us with robust ecosystem services, range from the generalist to the obscure specialist.
At the end of the day though, are these explanations compelling enough for the average person? Do they leave the people aware of the repercussions of the sixth mass extinction we are contributing to and continuing to facilitate? What will create change, the image of a lonely polar bear floating on a melting ice cap, thousands of green sea turtle hatchlings drowning underneath a layer of discarded plastic, hundreds of hectares of tropical forest clear-cut by illegal logging? While completely accurate in describing the direction the biota on Earth is headed, the doom and gloom rhetoric is tired, and ineffective.
Instead of focusing on the negative, let’s learn about our place in the biotic world.
Let’s get involved, all of us, and become part of the conversation. And it all starts by going out and investigating what biodiversity means to you. Next time you think about sitting down to watch a nature documentary, why not take a trip outside and learn about the wildlife you can find in your very own backyard or neighborhood park. Pick up a notebook and start drawing, taking notes, or even trying to describe the characteristics of the plant life that surrounds you on your next hike. Ask your doctor more about those “good microbes” and learn more about what they do to help sustain you and our planet every day. Understanding what each of these species does for you, why it is there, and how it fits in with the ecosystem you occupy, is the first step to understanding why biodiversity matters.