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As the Earth approaches a critical tipping point, a reminder about why our biological wealth is critical for health

Earth is rapidly approaching a tipping point, and our quality of life will suffer substantial degradation by 2050 if we continue on our current path, according to a global group of scientists.

The Millennium Alliance for Humanity & the Biosphere recently issued a call to action to the world’s policymakers in this documentA Message to World Leaders: Scientific Consensus on Maintaining Humanity’s Life Support Systems in the 21st Century. Information for Policy Makers.

They said:

“By the time today’s children reach middle age, it is extremely likely that Earth’s life-support systems, critical for human prosperity and existence, will be irretrievably damaged by the magnitude, global extent, and combination of these human-caused environmental stressors, unless we take concrete, immediate actions to ensure a sustainable, high-quality future.”

The key areas of concern outlined in the document are: climate disruption; extinctions; wholesale loss of diverse ecosystems, pollution; and human population growth and consumption patterns.

On extinctions, the document states:

“Not since the dinosaurs went extinct have so many species and populations died out so fast, both on land and in the oceans…currently at least 23,000 species are threatened with extinction… The world’s plants, animals, fungi and microbes are the working parts of Earth’s life support systems. Losing them imposes direct economic losses, lessens the effectiveness of nature to serve our needs, and carries significant emotional and moral costs….At least 40% of the world’s economy and 80% of the needs of the poor are derived from biological resources”.

The scientists urge concerned citizens to sign this statement endorsing their call to action.

Meanwhile, public health physician Professor Marion Carey argues below that the conservation of our biological wealth is critical for the sake of our health.

***

Self interest: a sound reason for protecting our biological life support systems

Marion Carey writes:

It was World Biodiversity Day last month.

But how many of us will gave it a thought? How many of us understand what biodiversity means? Why should we care?

Biodiversity is the number, variety and variability of living organisms on the planet. There is genetic, species, and ecosystem diversity. Ecosystems comprise communities of plants, animals and microorganisms, and their interactions with one another and the physical environment.

Australia has about ten precent of the world’s biodiversity, with a unique evolutionary history.   More than 80 per cent of the country’s flowering plants, mammals, reptiles and frogs are unique to Australia, along with most of its freshwater fish and almost half of its birds.

Yet the record of extinctions in Australia has not been a proud one, and we have a long list of critically endangered species.

The last Christmas Island pipistrelle, a tiny Australian bat, recently became extinct but would most people in the hustle and bustle of their daily lives see that as important?

Tim Flannery has written about this  “unmourned death of a sole survivor”. Flannery argues that we should care about these animals as a values issue in the same way we should care about the human rights of others we don’t know.

Personally I don’t hold much hope for this argument, despite its appeal. I think we should care, and be taught to care out of self-interest – the self-interest of own survival, health and well-being.

We spend so much time caring about our financial wealth – we are fixated on it. Yet biodiversity represents our biological wealth. It provides a wide variety of life supporting ecosystem services upon which we depend for our health, economy and survival.

We have long been relying on the resilience of these natural systems to support us, but we have now severely depleted them, leaving us with a much more uncertain future.

Biodiversity is an insurance policy for our ecosystems, providing stability and resilience with the ability to adapt in the face of changing environmental conditions.

It underpins ecosystem services to humans including food production, soil fertility, waste decomposition, nutrient cycling, seed dispersal, pest control, pollination, medicinal and genetic resources, climate regulation, natural hazard protection, water purification and cycling, disease regulation and psychological well-being – to name just a few.

The reality, as described eloquently by some eminent Harvard physicians, is that “human beings are an integral, inseparable part of the natural world, and that our health depends ultimately on the health of its species and on the natural functioning of its ecosystems”.

Let’s take a couple of examples – food and water security and mental health.

Natural vegetation regulates the hydrological cycle and is very important for fresh water quality and quantity. As water flows over the land, trees hold the soil, retain nutrients, prevent erosion and allow water to seep more slowly into the earth and the release back into the atmosphere is controlled through transpiration. Forests can affect local microclimate and can increase local water supply.

Water filtration and purification is especially important for the prevention of waterborne disease in humans. Loss of biodiversity around waterways leads to loading of waterways with pathogens and nutrients. This may lead to contaminated drinking water, or blooms of harmful blue-green algae which produce a range of toxins, making water unfit for human use.

Estimates of the financial worth of such services of the Catskills mountain forest catchment for New York City, for example, have been valued in billions of dollars.

The 157,000 hectares of forest that protect Melbourne’s water supply have been called “a priceless legacy”, ensuring some of the best drinking water in the world. In the absence of such systems, more extensive and expensive artificial treatment facilities would be required.

Biodiversity also supports food security and dietary health. Food production relies on genetic diversity, crop pollination, pest control, soil formation, fertility, and nutrient recycling.

Diets based on a diversity of food species promote good health.  In the space of a week at least 20 to 30 biologically distinct types of food are needed for good human nutrition.

While about half of childhood deaths in the developing world are due to under nutrition, in countries such as Australia, poor nutrition is linked to chronic disease with increases in hypertension, serum cholesterol, obesity and some cancers.

Many crops are dependent on specific natural pollinators for fertilisation yet bee populations in many countries have been decimated. In Australia, natural vegetation is important for both commercial and native bees, providing essential nectar and pollen.

Climate change is having severe impacts on ocean ecosystems – through both acidification and warming. This in association with other stressors will have significant impacts on fisheries, a major source of protein and other nutrients for the human diet.

An estimated 500 million people globally depend for their daily existence on coral reefs – marine species provide 17% of animal protein consumed by humans. Yet the predictions are that CO2  concentrations of 450ppm will largely eliminate carbonate coral reefs as we know them.

A large body of evidence is accruing on the health benefits of contact with natural environments.

These physical and psychological benefits include facilitation of exercise for cardiovascular health, improvement in concentration, benefits for children’s cognitive development and reductions in anxiety and depression.

Spending time in with nature is being increasingly promoted as an antidote to our stressful urbanised lifestyles: “Feel blue? Touch green!”

Perhaps it is our evolutionary wiring that makes us seek out connections with other living things, even beyond what is required for our basic needs, soothing our mind and spirit.

The popularity of gardening, bird watching, visiting zoos, snorkelling, diving, bushwalking, nature retreats, swimming with dolphins, whale watching, and so on, testifies to the value of natural species to human wellbeing.  In fact, the increasing isolation of children from the natural world has been coined “nature-deficit disorder” and sparked community movements to reconnect people with nature at an early age.

So let’s spare a moment to consider biodiversity, and how (whether we want to admit it or not) we are locked into the intricate web of life on this planet, dependent on other species.  Let’s protect our biological life support for our own sake.

• Dr Marion Carey is a public health physician specialising in environmental health. She is an adjunct associate professor at Monash University.

****

Related reading

• Bob Brown’s call for the Tarkine wilderness in Tasmania to be protected (The Guardian).

• The latest news wrap from the Climate and Health Alliance.

Dire predictions that hundreds of millions of people will be displaced from their homelands in the near future as a result of global warming, from economist and climate change expert Lord Stern; while the Prince of Wales has criticised “corporate lobbyists” and climate change sceptics for turning the earth into a “dying patient” (both articles in The Guardian).

• Meanwhile, in Australia, the debate about climate change remains stuck on “controversy over a carbon tax” rather than the “extreme danger” facing the land, oceans and biosphere, according to ANU scientist Andrew Glikson (The Conversation).

• A report by Greentech Media outlines recent innovations in energy efficiency, while a commodities report by Deutsche Bank suggests that the coal market is under threat internationally from “a major shift in rational decision making about energy supply and demand” (Renew Economy).

****

Encounters with endangered species

On a personal note, I’ve had the great good fortune to spend the past four days as a volunteer on an environmental expedition to remote islands off the coast of Western Australia.

My partner and I joined a dedicated team of environmental workers in late-night forays to spotlight and examine the banded hare-wallaby (Lagostrophus fasciatus) and other delightful little critters whose future is precarious. Once found widely across the mainland, banded hare-wallabies are now confined to a few islands.

This is one of the little animals that we had the privilege of meeting. Their future depends upon us. And vice versa…

The banded hare-wallaby. Photo by Mitchell Ward

 

 

 

Comments 3

  1. Puff, the Magic Dragon. says:

    While I will do all that I can to stop the loss of our biological systems and our natural environment, I hold little hope that anything will make a difference, because the majority of Australians are selfish greedy b’tards.

    We are SKIing, Spending the Kids Inheritance, both financially, because it will cost them a motza to repudiate some of this damage, and biologically, as we wipe out flora, fauna and habitats so we can wipe are arskeholes on white toilet paper.

    We have been told this for decades, but the days of Saving the Franklin are gone. It is everybody for themselves and vote off the weakest in this reality show.

    We can’t even save the habitat of the Leadbeater Possum. What hope anything else?

    It is all a lost cause, lost to Mother Earth’s degradation by the greatest parasite ever to climb out of the slime, Homo Sapiens.

  2. Cheryl Hill says:

    Dear Puff
    you might remember god’s deal with Lot in the Old Testament: the city would be saved if as few as 10 ‘good men’ could be found. Alas for Sodom, in the end Lot couldn’t get the numbers and the city was destroyed.
    You clearly feel that we’re going down that path again in regard to the thoughtless destruction of our natural heritage and there is quite a bit of evidence to support this conclusion. While 30 years in the conservation sector has shown me that most people don’t understand or don’t care about the consequences of what we are doing, it has also shown me that many of us care enough to do something about it. By my estimation, the Pareto principle (or 80/20 rule) holds true in this situation. The real question is, if 20% care is that enough to save the earth? If I was god, in this case I’d give us a second chance. This earth is worth it.
    Please, dear 20%, can we try harder?

  3. hk says:

    Maybe at the end of each day, people who care about a healthy ecological system on Earth need to ask themselves how much time they spent over the last twenty-four hours NOT reducing biodiversity through their day’s activity. In other words what does a life cycle analysis of their day’s consumption show? Could their time tomorrow be spent with less impact on biodiversity reduction?

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