What is biodiversity loss and what are the main causes?
Biodiversity represents how diverse life is within an ecosystem from plants, to fungi, to animals. The higher the biodiversity is, the more species there are living within that habitat.
Biodiversity loss is exactly what it sounds like - the reduction in the variety of species in an area.
Biodiversity loss can be as small as paving over an open field to put in a new strip mall. It can also be as large as clear cutting of the Amazon or extreme pollution in the Gulf of Mexico causing a dead zone where nothing can survive.
Biodiversity loss is typically man-made, either by the intentional destruction of habitat or the unintentional consequences of pollution. Biodiversity loss is a driver of climate change because it ruins the natural cycle of carbon absorption and oxygen emission that plants and ecosystems provide us.
We can't pave our way to economic prosperity. Cutting down the Amazon for cattle production has ruined the rain cycle so much that there is catastrophic drought and wildfires throughout the Amazon basin. Or consider the Niger Delta, which is so polluted that the water can catch fire. Locals can't fish or drink that water, oil is the only option and it isn't even making them rich.
We are fighting a losing battle, reaching for economic prosperity while ruining the world that supports us.
What does a diverse ecosystem provide?
One of the most harmful effects of a western-centric mindset is thinking we are separate from nature when in reality, we are very much a part of it. From the food chain to our health – even to protecting our economy, biodiversity is the foundation of our society. Let’s take a closer look at the importance of a healthy ecosystem.
The food we eat doesn’t just appear. Even heavily processed foods such as Doritos and Oreos started in a field somewhere. The natural systems in place that encourage crops to grow rely on more than just planting a seed. The climate needs to be right, there needs to be a variety of pollinators, and even the bacteria in the soil need to have the right balance.
To keep the cycle running smoothly, a biodiverse ecosystem is necessary. But, when it comes to agriculture, we've gone in the opposite direction and instituted monoculture farming. With monoculture farming, a field is planted with only one type of crop instead of multiple, in an attempt to make farming more efficient and increase crop yields.
Planting fewer types of crops decreases biodiversity, which leads to several problems like soil nutrient depletion and lower resilience to disease and climate change. When a field only contains one crop, disease can spread rapidly and kill off entire harvests. The same thing can happen with climate-related issues - if the crop planted isn’t resilient to drought and an area experiences less rainfall than usual, the entire yield will suffer.
It's not just about the plants - the loss of animals and insects can threaten the global food supply too. There has been a massive die-off of bees, which pollinate about one-third of U.S.-produced crops. Without them, crops can't reproduce. The situation is so dire that China has begun pollinating crops by hand. This is not a future we can afford.
We need healthy soil, pollinators, and seeds to provide abundant and nutritious food. By planting more than one type of crop, the biodiversity of the area increases. This doesn’t just give farmers more variety in what they produce, but it also enhances the health of the ecosystem as a whole, leading to a more stable and resilient food supply.
As humans continue to expand into untouched habitats, we are breaking down our protection from zoonotic diseases. Disease outbreaks can be linked to destruction and encroachment on natural habitats.
How? A lot of it goes back to habitat loss. As we continue to reduce the amount of green space on the planet, we’re cutting down on the number of plants that can take carbon out of the atmosphere while we continue to pump more carbon into the atmosphere. This contributes to climate change and rising temperatures.
The combination of lost habitats and accelerated global heating gives mosquitoes a large range and longer season, pathogens are being released by thawing permafrost, fewer ticks are dying off in warm winters, and waterborne bacteria are spreading further north into warmer waters. All of this can increase your chances of getting a disease, from Zika to Lyme disease. A world where we continue to destroy habitats is a world where we destroy ourselves.
Protects our homes and communities
It is proven that biodiversity protects us from storms and weather disasters, making it a key tool in reducing the effects of climate change. Mangroves, coral reefs, and sand dunes protect shorelines from hurricane-force waves, while lush, full greenery helps protect communities from landslides caused by torrential rain. As climate change continues to accelerate, these weather events will only continue to get worse. Biodiversity is now more important than ever.
Increased biodiversity can also prevent climate change from getting worse. As we mentioned briefly above, natural habitats sequester carbon dioxide, one of the largest causes of global heating, from the atmosphere. By continuously cutting down forests, that carbon dioxide doesn’t have anywhere to go and continues to warm the planet.
Ensures a viable economy
In the world that we live in, the health of the economy is one of the most important things on our minds. To think about the economy in terms of climate disasters, consider the expense tied to the destruction a hurricane brings. Homes are flooded, roofs are ripped off, and towns can be left stranded from roadways for months.
Not having a home can take people out of the workforce, and the cost of rebuilding or moving people adds up. As the world heats up, weather disasters are happening more frequently. And the economic toll is adding up, to the tune of $101 billion in 2021.
Protecting biodiversity can provide a line of defense from storms, as noted previously, and it can keep food systems healthy and producing. Without food, not only will civilization suffer but 2.6 billion people rely on farming and agriculture for their livelihoods.
Biodiversity is also the economic foundation for many countries. Ecotourism, where people travel to destinations primarily to experience protected natural sites, is a huge source of revenue for countries like Costa Rica and Iceland. By getting rid of these natural resources, it’s not just the ecosystems that collapse, it’s the economy too.
How can we ensure biodiversity remains healthy for future generations?
If the natural world cannot exist, neither can we. Extreme reduction in biodiversity is making life on this planet challenging, not just for the polar bears or the tigers, but for us humans, too. Cracks are starting to appear with crop failures due to drought, extreme weather, or flooding popping up seemingly every week.
As an individual, you can't stop corporations from cutting down trees and polluting the earth, but there are a few things you can do to play your part in protecting biodiversity and the planet. You can vote for people who promise to protect the environment or donate to organizations that focus on biodiversity, like the World Wildlife Fund and Conservation International.
You can also make lifestyle changes at home. Plant some native species in your yard, be a conscious consumer, maybe consider an electric vehicle, or take public transportation to the office instead of driving. One of the best ways to live a greener life is by adding solar panels to your roof. This reduces the number of dirty fossil fuels you use to power your home, while also saving you money.