Sustaining Life

From yesterday’s Newshour, Dr. Eric Chivian, Center for Health and the Global Environment Director, Harvard Medical School, talks about the importance of preserving biodiversity and how, if nothing else, it acts as a kind of insurance policy for humans.

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26 Comments

Filed under Environmental Policy

26 responses to “Sustaining Life

  1. jkg

    This is a very important topic to be overlooked in the environmental sphere of debate. Ecologists have been researching for years about how the “balance of nature” is greatly unfounded. While some systems benefit from periodical disturbances, the hierarchical nested dynamics of an ecosystem does permit succession to construct redundancies. The key thing here is that if a disturbance is of a high magnitude, these redundancies are destroyed and largely irreplaceable. If a system does return to an equilibrium state, it is never going to be the same equilibrium state as before let alone a close approximation to it. This is what is happening in certain areas of the tropical rain forest in which the robust richness and abundance of plants is being diminished. This has a cascading effect on the rest of the ecosystem across all temporal scales.

    Interestingly, ecologists have been looking at how changes on one scale can affect the dynamics at another scale. Thus, a slight degree change or shift in seasonal precipitation can result in an amplifying effect in which even trophic levels are greatly simplified.

    Finally, I would like to point that contrary to the knee jerk reactionaries, a large group of ecologists and environmentalists are not advocating in preserving an ecosystem per se, but rather to preserve the evolution if you will. That is not to say some want to keep certain plants and artificially due to their immense application to human medicine and health, but it is a distinction that needs to be made. The difficulty though is that human survival has been accustomed to the current biodiversity, and medical innovation has benefited from it. Thus, if the global biodiversity becomes greatly reduced, it is very likely it will have great effects population survival. This is practically a certainty though; population growth, as population ecologists have shown, has not experienced an inflection point as of yet (meaning it has not even turned from its exponential curve). Given the already challenge of meeting global food production requirements, the transition stage will be very painful.

  2. JKG — Wow. That’s a lot of information to absorb.

  3. Ti-Guy

    Jkg: It would help if you illustrated your more abstract points (which are quite good) with a few concrete examples. Discussions of complex systems are notoriously difficult to grasp without them.

    Red: Just to be contrarian, this clip really is about “bringing it home” to Americans who rely on technological solutions to solve problems their previous technological solutions have created, like the treatment for type II diabetes (which results from obesity, malnutrition and a sedentary lifestyle). Not exclusively though; the breakthrough in pain medication is a genuine innovation.

    The discussion about biodiversity is welcome though. Biodiversity is something everyone needs to be acquainted with. It’s another one of those things the “primitives” understand a lot better than the most of us.

  4. Ti-Guy — Oh, very much so. The concept of biodiversity can seem pretty abstract, especially when it comes to obscure species in remote places — especially if they happen not to be “cute” and media friendly — so putting their preservation in a selfishly human context is probably a good thing.

    Nice dig about the “primitives” btw. 😉 Zing!

  5. Ti-Guy

    Nice dig about the “primitives” btw. 😉 Zing!

    I learned it when I lived in the tropics. I’d ask my housekeeper (who didn’t live in the area) what the name of a certain, usually repulsive bug was and she’s shrug and say “I don’t know.” After a few incidents of that, she explained to me that I lived at a higher altitude and in a rain shadow and thus, the fauna was different from where she lived (although not quite in those words). But the implication was: “Duh. Everyone knows that.”

  6. TofKW

    The concept of biodiversity can seem pretty abstract

    True RT, but it doesn’t need to be, it all depends on how it is explained. To put it simply, the health of an ecosystem (from the smallest isolated communities to the entire earth) is measured by the number of distinctive species it contains. The less species there are, the less the genetic diversity and overall health of the ecosystem.

    If a world-wide catastrophe occurs (hypothetically say the impact of a planet-killer meteorite or comet) the number of species that ultimately survive is increased by the biodiversity that exists. I admit a rather extreme scenario, though it shows the importance of maintaining a healthy amount of genetic diversity. Another less alarming futuristic example could be the sudden occurrence of a disease which wipes out a genetically engineered food crop. It is possible a previous grain that had become extinct thanks to industrialized farming could have been naturally resistant to the disease, thus showing that allowing genetic lines to die (decreasing biodiversity) in the name of progress is a very bad idea.

  7. TofKW — Personally, I don’t find the concept all that difficult to grasp, but was referring more to people in general, many of whom tend to just shrug off the extinction of species as perfectly natural (which to an extent it is, of course) and of little consequence.

  8. Ti-Guy

    The less species there are, the less the genetic diversity and overall health of the ecosystem.

    Actually, the health of an ecosystem is not dependent on genetic diversity (which results from millennia of evolution); it’s dependant on the relationships among species. Remember, there isn’t one ecosystem; there are millions. In areas of great biodiversity, the ecosystems are small and localised. In areas of minimal biodiversity (like the Arctic) the ecosystems are expansive. That’s why the Arctic is so vulnerable to climate change or habitat loss through any other means.

    The tropics are far less endangered than most of us believe. Although their proportion of the biosphere (the entirety of the Earth’s ecosystems) is significant and major disruptions there are likely cataclysmic, they’re not actually the pressing problem at the moment.

  9. To make things interesting, we need some “conservatives” to weigh into the discussion, telling us perhaps that all this nonsense about biodiversity is complete bollocks, as GOD will simply replenish our “all-you-can-consume” buffet of existence through His divine magnificence.

  10. jkg

    Hello all,

    My apologies; I suppose I have alluded to this before, but I am actually trained (and continued to be trained) in ecology and evolution, topics of which I am most interested. I gave more of a cursory summary as I was just making my way out the door. I apologize for cramming so much information. If you permit me, I will return to some specific examples illustrating what I have written and expand on the points I have made.

    To reiterate, as Ti-Guy has mentioned, quite well I might add, is that you have a system within a system. So, let’s say you are talking about the Amazon rainforest. On that scale, it has developed a very complex system in which plants can feed off of nutrients, insects can feed off of plants, vertebrates can feed off of both insects and plants, and so on. At this scale, a disturbance may wipe out a particular species of plants or insects in the food web but given that this rain forest has matured, an absence of that particular species will not cripple the food web such that species further up the chain will die off. Essentially, that is what I meant with regards to redundancies. A large system such as a rain forest can sustain such losses, but there is threshold in which past that point, species extinction will result in a cascade effect.

    One example I like to use is Victoria Lake in Africa. At one point, the lake itself had a very diverse species of fish, but when colonists introduced another species, it feed primarily on the lower plankton. Over time, what used to be a very expansive hierarchy of species (plankton, smaller fish, larger fish, etc) turn into a food web in which there were only one or two types per level. The same has happened and will continue to happen in other systems.

    The system within a system plays a more important part when you are dealing with a greater scale. So, for example, in our rain forest, a temperature change in a local area, say, in the lower altitudes of the rain forests, may eliminate or significantly reduce certain insects or plants. At this localized level, it is not that bad because all you have is a patch in which you have a different system operating.

    However, say for example, the overall temperature of the rain forest shifts a degree, given the hierarchy, this small shift in temperature or precipitation trickle down into the different subsystems, but given the location, the change can be greatly different. Thus, high altitude patches in the rain forest might support now 2 species of trees and shrubs as opposed to 5, and in the lower altitudes, you might have an increase in trees and plants.

    One might think that that this a good thing in the lower altitudes, but you would be mistaken. Why? Because overabundance means that certain insects and animals will prevail over others (this what that call the limiting factor in ecology in that since a resource was limiting, species were able to coexist), and this will result in a net reduction in species diversity.

    I will search for more concrete examples, but I hope this will illustrate some of my points. My concentration nowadays is biology, and I have had to lighten up on my hobby studying of political theory. As a result, I weight in more heavily in these types of posts. Please feel free to ask for clarification. I am more than willing to contribute to this type of discussion.

  11. Guzzeuntite

    Perhaps that all this nonsense about biodiversity is complete bollocks, as GOD will simply replenish our “all-you-can-consume” buffet of existence through His divine magnificence.

  12. Guzzeuntite

    First that bitch Mother Nature kills off all the other species of homo (no giggling Ti-Guy), our cousins, and she’s supposed to get all up-in-arms about our doing in some freakin’ lichen in the arctic?

    Screw her and the horse she rode in on.

  13. Here is the interesting philosophical point. I read an interview in Rolling Stone with Cormack McCarthy a while back (author of “No Country for Old Men”).. and he lives at a place they call the “Santa Fe Institute”.. sort of a “think-tank” of sorts for, well, deep thinkers.

    And his take on climate change was basically that mankind is doomed to die off sooner or later – might as well be sooner. So why worry about it? In the cosmic scheme of things, we will leave the planet at some point and the planet will find it’s way without us, thank-you, so the preoccupation with the whole global warming thing is really quite ego-centric in a sense.

    We’re saving the planet? No. Not really. We’re just postponing the invitable moment when flora and fauna will be able to evolve without our persistent interference.

    So. In a way.. the David Suzuki’s of the world are really a negative impact on the planet, because they are seeking to unduly prolong our interference with the “natural order”.

  14. Guzzeuntite

    “And his take on climate change was basically that mankind is doomed to die off sooner or later – might as well be sooner. So why worry about it? In the cosmic scheme of things, we will leave the planet at some point and the planet will find it’s way without us, thank-you, so the preoccupation with the whole global warming thing is really quite ego-centric in a sense.”

    This is a pretty stupid point of view they have, if true. Of course we are worth saving as a species. The whole AGW debate is (1) whether we as a species are a significant cause of climate change and (2) if we are, whether the costs that we propose to incur to reverse its effects less than the expected costs of the climate change.

    One camp say hell yeah, the end is nigh. The other camp says, “Case not proven and, even if it were, the apocalyptic scenario that has been set forth is way overwrought. So, the incredible costs proposed will do more damage than the forecasted bad weather. There is just too much uncertainty.

    Plus, we skeptics think this is just another attempt by the transnational progressive movement to run our freakin’ lives.

  15. “Of course we are worth saving as a species.”

    ..we are to us.. but, maybe go ask a clam. Or a chicken. Or a beluga whale.

    I just think it’s an interesting point of view, not that I subscribe to it.. but imagine that we’re a bunch of ants trying to save an ant hill during a flood.. all this scurrying around would probably look pretty mindless and futile, from a cosmic perspective.

  16. Ti-Guy

    Come back to Earth, Rob. You’re sailing off into the cosmos again.

    It’s not up to you or anyone else to attempt to divine what will happen to mankind centuries from now (mostly because you really have no idea) and decide that that fate pre-determines our choices right now, in our lifetimes. It’s a cop-out, it’s authoritarian and it’s a way for “little minds” to pretend they’re more intellectually sophisticated than they really are.

  17. TG.

    Not everything in the blogworld needs to be practical application of real-world principals. I mean, really, that would be the exception as opposed to the rule.. most discussion in politics amounts to little more than blowing smoke at the best of times.

    And it wasn’t my idea anyway.. it comes from a guy that, I would say, holds a modicum more skill than you and I to express ideas.. and if you find it mundane or less than worthy of consideration, well, that’s fine.. I just think it’s an interesting point of view..

  18. (says the little ant sending a note to another little ant, read by yet another bunch of little ants)

  19. Ti-Guy

    I would say, holds a modicum more skill than you and I to express ideas.

    Who? Cormac McCarthy?

    Whatever. My point still stands. It’s a cop out. Economists like to say “In the end , we’re all dead anyway,” as a sardonic statement that implies “but of course, while we’re still living, this stuff still has to be taken care of.”

  20. Guzzeuntite

    ” … but, maybe go ask a clam. Or a chicken. Or a beluga whale.”

    Tastey, tastey, and entertaining.

  21. Guzzeuntite

    Spelling, spelling.

  22. TofKW

    (2) if we are, whether the costs that we propose to incur to reverse its effects less than the expected costs of the climate change.

    Wonderful, much like Ford’s decision to continue the as-designed production of the Pinto, because they determined the cost of redesigning and retooling would exceed the legal costs from the victims burned in rear-end collisions. Humanity is at its finest when mankind reduces lives to a dollar value.

    we skeptics think this is just another attempt by the transnational progressive movement to run our freakin’ lives.

    Wake up Guzz, our lives are being run by a transnational movement. But it’s not a bunch of tree-hugging, gun-restricting, gay-agenda, socialist hippies. Perhaps, someday you will figure out who the powers that be are, and this manufactured right-left charade meant to keep us bickering …but I doubt it.

  23. Ti-Guy

    I think the economic arguments against doing anything about climate change are probably bullshit anyway. They come from Conservatives after all…people who generally have insufficient imagination to calculate simple cost/benefit, are notoriously penny-wise and pound-foolish, don’t understand total cost of ownership and tend to put more faith in economic policies the more mystifying and complicated they sound. Although a lot of our so-called experts these days, regardless of political stripe, are guilty of that as well.

  24. TG.. makes a valid point. Accidentally I’m sure.. but there is a broader need to understand long-term consequences of immediate decisions. Which we don’t.

    We are so worried about immediate loss of jobs, that we reward business for failing (bailouts). We are so worried about crime, that we pass pointless legislation that won’t reduce it (gun registration/minimum sentencing).

    We don’t understand that if business doesn’t succeed, people lose jobs. And we don’t understand that when people lose jobs, they don’t buy our stuff.

    We don’t understand that everyone relies on their neighbor, for something, at some point, even when they don’t look “like we do”, literally or metaphorically.

    But I still think, on a certain level, we’re a bunch of cosmic ants, or even ameobas.. very important in our own little microscopic world, but in the grand scheme.. pretty insignificant.

    Some more than others.

  25. Ti-Guy

    Rob, everyone (your “we”) understands that stuff. They just don’t care. Some less than others.

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