Biodiversity loss: the biggest crisis you’ve probably never heard of
Biodiversity has met our needs in such an artful and apparently subtle way that we haven’t really noticed the true extent of our dependence
Billy Horan’s image “Do you like my new antlers?” was highly commended in the 2017 National Biodiversity Photographer of the Year competition
So, what are you doing for Biodiversity Week? It’s probably not a question you’ve asked yourself, and that’s probably not your fault. The wonders of nature don’t take up much space in the way of primetime TV or column inches, let alone the fact that that we’re losing them at a rate unprecedented in human history, so it’s not altogether surprising that 10 days of free country-wide activities might just pass you by.
We may have more news in our lives than ever before, but there are plenty of important stories that aren’t being told, and the quiet destruction of the library of life is absolutely one of them. Is it that nobody cares? Or is it – my hunch – more to do with the fact that most people aren’t entirely clear on what biodiversity is, and even less clear on why it matters?
A recent study compared articles in the media on biodiversity loss to those on climate change and found that, as under-reported global environmental catastrophes go, biodiversity is faring rather badly. Looking across 25 years of media reports in North America and the UK, coverage of climate change was eight times higher than that of biodiversity, though the two issues are equally dangerous.
It’s a problem because while schoolchildren may be exposed to important messages about the value of nature through brilliant initiatives like Green Schools, the adults actually running the show aren’t. This is despite the national Biodiversity Week (taking place from May 19th to 27th), the International Day for Biodiversity (May 22nd), and the UN Decade on Biodiversity (this decade, in case you were wondering). Not to mention the sterling efforts of various environmental groups around the country and the publication of a new National Biodiversity Action Plan.
I spend a lot of time talking to people about biodiversity loss, and it’s always a cause for genuine shock when I reveal the fact that more than 90 per cent of Ireland’s protected habitats are classified as “poor” or “inadequate” (and that’s to say nothing of our unprotected habitats). Our image as the Emerald Isle and the countryside’s general green-ness act as a kind of camouflage for the appalling health of our ecosystems. People tend to be less shocked when I tell them that globally, terrestrial and marine species have declined by almost 40 per cent since 1970. Somehow biodiversity loss in distant places is easier to get our heads around. But the question of why this matters remains as intangible as ever.
The biodiversity we have on earth right now is essentially the result of billions of years of research and development by the universe’s most prolific innovator, life. We evolved as part of it, so we completely and totally depend on it for survival, but it has met our needs in such an artful and apparently subtle way that we haven’t really noticed the true extent of our dependence. Back in March, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES, kind of like the IPCC for biodiversity) shone a light on this very topic, releasing a major study involving 550 experts from 100 countries. Among its gruesome findings was the news that in every region of the world, biodiversity and nature’s capacity to feed, clothe, house and clean up after us is being reduced, degraded and lost.
So while it might not seem like a big deal when a tiny snail only a handful of people have ever heard of goes the way of the dodo, it’s kind of missing the point. The web of life on which humans depend is made up of interactions between species that very few people have heard of. Many of those species are not cute. But the complexity of the system they’re part of – and our terrifyingly limited scientific understanding of that complexity – is not something it’s safe for humanity to mess with.
As the renowned physicist Sir Martin Rees once put it, the cosmos is easier to understand than a frog. And while that may be true, it’s also true that doing something – anything – about biodiversity loss isn’t rocket science, and that something is always better than nothing. Biodiversity Week is a great time to start figuring out what that something might be.
Hannah Hamilton is a sustainability expert specialising in biodiversity conservation and environmental communications.