On the importance of biodiversity
By Jeff Harvey1
Steve Frank, and, with all due respect to Steve, his understanding of ecosystems and the services they generate that sustain us is incredibly poor.
First, I want to dispense entirely with the nonsense Steve writes about the Wildlands Project. The project was originated by Michael Soule and John Terborgh, two of the most esteemed ecologists in the United States, whose aims are in restoring much of the functional integrity to many of North America's ecosystems. The Project is based entirely on solid, empirical scientific principles, assuming that the loss of species at the terminal end of the food chain has created trophic cascades that have seriously disrupted the functioning of ecosystems across North America, and particularly in the United States, where the mountain lion has been extirpated east of the Rockies, and the Grizzly Bear and Timber Wolf decimated in the lower 48 states. There is certainly sufficient evidence to suggest that the loss of these species has profoundly affected such disparate processes and the dynamics of Lyme disease to the decline of songbird populations (as impacted by meso-predators), and since we have no possible way of extrapolating the longer term effects of their loss (since the consequences of extinction may ripple through communties for decades or even centuries, a process known as the "extinctiuon debt"), then it is prudent to find ways of re-establishing members of the fourth trophic level where possible. The Wildlands Project was founded on the premise that landowners and federal agencies co-operate to achieve this objective by re-introducing wolves and perhaps mountain lions into biomes from which they have disappeared. Wise Use has attempted to discredit the project with all kinds of hyperbole and smear campaigns, and even Bjorn Lomborg had a go at discrediting the project in his scientifically vacuous book. Wise Use, along with corporate-funded think tanks and others on the far right are masking their deregulatory agenda under the banner of "free-market environmentalism". Effectively, they want to hand over all public lands to developers and off-road vehicle enthusiasts, render conservation mute and thus create their own libertarian utopia where labor and environment laws are gutted and corporations become self-regulating. I cannot say enough how utterly dangerous these people are, because they are mobilizing grass roots support for their sick agenda.
What I find most ignorant is when contrarians try and downplay extinction rates by using the "its natural" argument. Of course it is; I and my colleagues in ecology have never said anything else. What is not natural is the fact that humanity is driving extinction rates that are hundreds if not thousands of times faster than naturally occurring "background" rates. All extinctions have consequences, even though many may not apprantly affect human society. But the bottom line is that humanity is conducting a global experiment on systems of unimaginable complexity, whose functioning we are only barely beginning to understand. These systems, over variable spatial and temporal scales, generate life-sustaining conditions that, as ecologist Simon Levin succinctly states in "Fragile Dominion", permit our existence; they do not exist by virtue of doing so; we exist because ecosystems and the species that make them up generate processes that permit it. There is a distinction here. Geoff Heal, in his excellent book, "Nature and the Marketplace", compares ecosystem services to convential utilities like water, roads, electricty etc. These underpin human society, and we cannot do without them. Similarly, ecosystem services represent the essential low-level infrastructure that sustains us. From the maintenance of global cycles of oxygen, carbon dioxide and nitrogen to the generation and production of soils, from climate control to pollination, from mitigation of floods and droughts to seed dispersal, ecosystems generate processes which cannot be effectively replicated by technology and which are freely provided. They do not carry prices; if they did, human assault on the biosphere and attendant deterioration of these services would alert us to the consequenses of their loss.
Therefore, we should be profoundly alarmed at the current extinction episode underway, the consequences of human malfeascence, since we are vanquishing the working parts (species and genetically distinct populations) of our life-support systems at rates unseen on the planet for 65 million years. We have little idea how much we can simplify these systems before they break down (and there is evidence that the collapse of earlier civilizations was driven in part by the destruction of ecosystems and the loss of services they generated). We have little idea which are the most important functional components for a given biome, ecosystem or community. We only poorly understand the link between the behaviour and physiology of individual organisms and emergent properties such as productivity and resilience that emerge over larger scales. Thus, I loathe the argument put forward by contrarians that "extinction doesn't matter", or "its natural, so why bother?". The Endangered Species Act is, contrary to Steve's glib arguments, an important piece of legislation because it (a) recognized that human activities are responsible for virtually all recent extinctions in the United States, as well as endangered species, and that (b) protection of a species can only be achieved by protecting its habitat. Protecting habitat of one species extends an umbrella over other biota that inhabit that habitat. Sure, there have been problems associated with it, but let's focus on the successes (many) rather than the failures (fewer).
Last week I debated a contrarian in a meeting held in Amsterdam, and he was utterly incapable of coutering my assertion that humanity is going through more than just a "bad patch" right now. Like it or not, we are living in a time of gradual, but inexorable biophysical decline, and the prognosis of "business-as-usual" that pervades western thinking is not a good one. We are running out of time, and the longer we wait to deal with this, the more serious and painful the transformation will be. Unlike linear optimists, I am a structural optimist who believes that we have strayed off course and that fundamental changes are needed in society if me are to get back on track. Sadly, the population's flirtation with right wing populism in America and Europe is a step backward in my opinion.
Netherlands Institute of Ecology
Transcribed from a contribution to Ecological Economics 1 October 2002.
Footnotes by ecoglobe:
1 Dr. Jeffrey A. Harvey is Senior Scientist at the Netherlands Institute of Ecology, Centre for Terrestrial Ecology, Boterhoeksestraat 48, NL-6666 Heteren, The Netherlands. Tel: (+31) (26) 4791 306
2 See ecological economics discussion records at csf.colorado.edu [Link opens in a new window.]
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