I decided to address this topic because of rapidly increasing extinction rates. In a search of my university’s library, I found hundreds of studies from reputable journals (Conservation Biology, Science, Evolutionary Biology, Ecological Modeling, Biodiversity & Conservation, Ecosphere, Bioscience, Nature, Ecological Applications to name a few) that either provided research on extinction of specific species or more generally, looked at rates of extinction. The data does converge in supporting that the current global extinction rate is 1,000 times higher than it was before humans came along. The planet may be heading for a 6th mass extinction event. Five previous events, including the one that killed the dinosaurs, wiped out a majority of life on Earth in the times before humans. With increasing loss of species, one might question whether humans will be involved in the next one.
The greatest cause of species extinction is habitat destruction, as well as displacement due to an introduced species (related to habitat destruction or interruption of ecosystem balance). Chemical pollutants, over-harvesting, hybridization and climate change have had a smaller, yet still significant role.
One might ask, “Why does this matter? Who cares about a single species?” The answer is biodiversity is essential for the stability of ecosystems. Diversity gives natural systems the ability to resist and adapt to disease, severe weather, and climactic change. Disease striking a society dependent on monoculture has been a major factor in many famines, the Irish Potato Famine being the most infamous. Biodiversity also maximizes the efficiency of ecosystems. Many studies have shown that a diversity of species is better able to utilize the inputs of water, sun and nutrients than a single or small number of species which leads to greater biomass and less soil erosion and nutrient loss. This is especially true of rainforests, but also applies to temperate forests and grasslands. In addition, the potential for utilizing genetic material in beneficial ways is expanding so rapidly that to put a value on the material from any species would be impossible.
The solutions are multifaceted: stabilization of population, reduction of individual consumption of material resources and fossil fuel resources, international agreements to preserve common resources, and development of sustainable/green technologies. But solutions must begin with a change in attitude and recognition that we live interdependently with all other species on the planet. Just as the land sustains us, we must recognize our responsibility to sustain the land.
What if the land was considered to be so integral to community that it had status as community member? It may sound radical to imply that the land should have equal community status, but let me remind the reader that the Supreme Court of the United States essentially gave citizenship rights to corporations through the Citizens United decision. If corporations have input into policy-making, why not allow land the same privilege? According to Thomas Berry (2009) if the land had such influence on policy, decision-making would include the following: the right to exist and not be used for trivial purposes; the right to healthy habitat; and the right to fulfill one’s role or niche in the community. In short, the integrity, stability, beauty and health of natural systems should have respect and value equal to that of as any member of community (Shaw, 1997). The continuation of our species may depend upon it.
Republican leaders have recently come out strongly in favor of changing the Endangered Species Act because it gets in the way of development and activities that destroy habitat and frustrates narrow but politically powerful economic interests. We need to let our representatives know how we feel about the importance of biodiversity and preservation of this landmark legislation.