Why conservation of our environment matters
ON his way to East Asia last week, US President Barack Obama travelled to a secluded Hawaiian atoll far from his hometown of Honolulu for a brief and deserved moment of celebration. The US president had announced that he is expanding the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, making it the largest protected wilderness area in the world. This act follows several other moves the president has taken late in his presidency to preserve wild lands and waters, many of which, including the Papahanaumokuakea expansion, have been controversial.
Balancing human needs with the necessity of conservation is always going to be tricky. But as people consider the costs and benefits, it is important to keep in mind that promoting biodiversity is not important simply because it protects cute mammals or beautiful fish. A study published in Science this summer found that more than half of the planet’s land has biodiversity levels so low they could endanger the human race.
The study relies on the concept of “planetary boundaries” – limits on the environmental changes Earth can experience before human safety is at risk. When an ecosystem loses 10 percent or more of its original species abundance, the authors say, it falls below a “safe” level for biodiversity. Fifty-eight percent of Earth’s land surface passes – or fails – that test. That poses a global threat to plant and animal life, and it could also jeopardise human development.
Though protecting ecosystems and their flora and fauna is important for its own sake, doing so has utilitarian value as well. The functions unharmed ecosystems perform for humankind – such as detoxifying waste, regulating disease-carrying organisms and supporting medical research – are worth trillions of dollars in global human welfare. Though the study did not cover sea resources, they are also crucial for recreation, regulating global systems, the food supply and many other things.
When ecosystems fail, crucial functions can fail with them: Agriculture, for example, relies on pollination that cannot take place in an unhealthy ecosystem. Biodiversity can also buffer the environment against climate change. The benefit-cost ratio of conserving the wild, scientists estimate, is 100 to 1.
A second study, presented in Nature last month, suggests that the biggest threats to biodiversity are over-exploitation – logging, fishing and hunting too much – as well as agriculture and urban development. Climate change is farther down the list but promises to become an even larger problem as the world warms.
Mr Obama’s second-term efforts highlight the importance of conservation, set a strong example for others and should ensure at least some environments remain pristine. Yet some of the worst practices are in the developing world; it is harder to order poor people to stop exploiting precious resources – and also harder to enforce such orders when they are issued. Part of getting the conservation balance right is considering whether roping off sections of land and water in the United States might simply lead to importing more from countries with worse practices. Encouraging other nations to take conservation seriously is essential, for their own good as well as everyone else’s.
– The Washington Post
More than half of the planet’s land has biodiversity levels so low they could endanger the human race.