Jim Davis (my blog)

Biological diversity, or "biodiversity", is generally recognized as one of the most significant environmental challenges facing our planet. This paper examines the concept of biodiversity as both a dynamic non-human process, and as a feature of human interaction with the environment. While humans have always had an impact on biodiversity, in the capitalist era the human impact has increased dramatically. Because the economic system accelerates biodiversity loss, halting such loss means addressing fundamental economic questions.

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment [MEA] (2005, p. 28) defines biodiversity as "the variability among living organisms from all sources...; this includes diversity within species, between species, and of ecosystems." Biodiversity then has three main dimensions: genetic variability with species; species variability within an ecosystem; and ecosystem variability across the planet (Cunningham, Cunningham and Saigo, 2005). Biodiversity changes according to significant changes in ecosystems. These changes may be either "habitat loss", where the ecosystem can no longer support a species; or the appearance of new, "invasive" species that extinguish existing species.

Biodiversity loss is a normal aspect of nature. Nature is a dynamic, complex process; ecosystems are in a constant state of agitation and transformation (Merchant, 1995). The planet has cooled from its molten beginnings; meteors and asteroids have hit the planet; ice ages come and go. Habitats are always changing; species are constantly evolving, interacting and migrating. Although there have been several prehistoric periods of dramatic species loss, most likely due to catastrophic external events, even between these events, species extinction occurs on a regular basis. In the normal eco-churn, species extinction is such a ongoing process that biologists have developed a "background rate of extinction" measurement of 0.1 - 1.0 extinctions per millions of species per year that estimates a normal rate of extinctions in the pre-human environment (MEA). Because species extinction is an easily quantifiable dimension of biodiversity, the background rate of extinction can serve as a useful baseline for measuring the human impact on biodiversity.

With the appearance of the human species, the rate of extinction has accelerated (Wilson 1992, cited in Flegal, 2004). "From prehistory to the present time," E.O. Wilson writes, "the mindless horsemen of the environmental apocalypse have been overkill, habitat destruction, introduction of animals such as rats and goats, and diseases carried by these exotic animals." In this sense humans can be considered the penultimate invasive species, with the added power to transform ecosystems, and to bring along a host of companion invaders.

From prehistoric hunting and gathering to global capitalism, each succeeding economic regime has transformed the environment in new ways. Wilson's four horsemen have been operative throughout most of human history (Foster, 1999; Diamond, 1999). Today, however, two interrelated factors converge to greatly accelerate the rate of biodiversity loss. First, the extension of the capitalist system, as a profit-maximizing market-oriented system, extracts use values from nature for exchange on the world market as commodities. Under such conditions, overkill and habitat destruction are economic externalities. Second, the power of new technologies within such a system qualitatively extends the speed and reach of the horsemen (Davis, 1997). New technologies, ranging from digital communications, electronics-based transportation systems, digital financial networks, genetically-modified crops, computer-modeled chemicals, satellite imaging, global positioning systems, and robotic manufacture each in their own way expands the ability to overkill, destroy habitat, push out old species and introduce new ones. The MEA estimates that extinction rate over the last 100 years at 100 times the background rate, today the rate is 1000 times background rate, and rising to a possible 10,000 times background rate by mid-century.

The loss of biodiversity, perhaps more so than any other environmental issue, touches at the heart of the failure of human-nature relationship. Most current arguments for protecting a healthy degree biodiversity point to utilitarian and economic reasons: new foods and miracle drugs await discovery in the rainforest, unique habitats are opportunities for exercise and ecotourism, diverse habitats like wetlands and forests protect cities from floods, disease and pollution (Cunningham et al, MEA). In fact, as environmental historian J. Donald Hughes (2005) has noted, as the economic dimension of biodiversity has become clearer, support for species and habitat conservation has broadened and the focus shifted. Questions like who owns biodiversity have emerged as pharmaceutical companies have moved to patent the genes of rainforest plants and people (Harry, 1995; Convention on Biodiversity, 2005).

Hughes, who includes biodiversity as one of the four most important themes for the environment and environmentalism in the coming decades, touches on a deeper meaning of biodiversity loss. "Interactions with countless birds and animals and plants helped to form our bodies and minds, and in many important respects made us what we are. If we lose that interaction, it will affect us more deeply than we may think." (p. 300) For David Abram (1996, p. ix), "we are human only in contact, and conviviality, with what is not human." "Extinction is forever", a battle cry for the biodiversity movement, communicates the sense of loss when a particular and unique configuration of nature, forged over countless generations and tuned by innumerable interactions with habitant, disappears. This relentless diminishing of Abram's other-that-makes-us-human contributes to the sense of alienation, disconnection and loss that underlies modern psychosis (Fisher, 2002).1

Biodiversity is a contentious issue because protecting diversity means confronting questions of property and wealth (e.g., wetland development, gene patents, access to fishing grounds, conversion of forest to cropland, or the use of genetically modified crops). Notable efforts have been made to stem biodiversity loss, ranging from local restoration projects (e.g., Sullivan, 2003) to national protective legislation like the 1976 Endangered Species Act, to global conventions like the 1975 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species and the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity as well as non-governmental organization efforts to preserve habitats (Cunningham et al.). However, local acts have limited impact; national protective legislation is under attack; and global conventions are of little use if their principles are not acted on.

While asteroids are believed to have been the cause of the various prehistoric species die-offs, today humans are the cause of biodiversity loss. Jared Diamond (1999) points out that the disappearance of large birds and mammals in Australia/New Guinea 35,000 years ago followed shortly after the arrival of humans there. A similar extinction of North American megafauna occurred within a few thousand years of the arrival of humans there. One can imagine a resulting hunter-gatherer economic crisis, prompting a social transformation that produced a sustainable redefinition of their relationship with nature (Abram, 1996). Like our ancestors, we too are entering an environmental endgame. Are we capable, like them, of rising to the challenge of re-ordering our economy, and through that redefining our relationship with nature?


1 One must allow for the development of technical fixes that may allow the resurrection of something akin to past species via cloning technologies (Vangelova, 2003). The results of such experiments can only hope to approximate the original, and begs a number of questions. What could be done with the research dollars if they were instead applied to habitat preservation? Can a species be defined apart from the environment within which it developed, that is, is it not much more than just its DNA? If humans re-create a species, what does that mean for our relationship to the new creation? Can we ever understand the complexities of even a small ecosystem such that tinkering with species after the fact will not cause greater havoc, a la Jurassic Park? Within a system that maximizes profit, how would the reanimator technology be put to use? Unfortunately these questions and more are beyond the scope of this overview.


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