Biodiversity has long been considered the poor man’s ecology. It plays a very important role in human life, and is a very worrying subject. Because biodiversity is subject to rampant deterioration which is weakening it a little more each day. But why is it in jeopardy? And most importantly, what can we do about it at this (late) stage?
What is biodiversity?
The word diversity covers all varieties of every living species and ecosystem in the world. It refers to life is all its forms: animals, plants and microorganisms, whether land-based, aquatic or marine, of every species and configuration. These living organisms interact with one another and spark off countless reactions that are necessary for life to exist. Each of them fulfils a precise function within its ecosystem, and so keeps all of the populations in balance.
Precious ecosystems front and centre
A pond or forest, for example, are ecosystems in which living organisms are configured in such a way that everyone has their place, in which the food chain benefits everyone and where all life forms are represented. The more organisms there are in an ecosystem, and the more prolific nature is, the more inert resources can be turned into organic ones. But the reverse is also true: the less biodiversity there is, the less conducive to life ecosystems are.
Crucial importance for life
We know how much the extinction of an animal species disrupts the food chain. It’s exactly the same with biodiversity. Constantly turning the earth over and treating it with chemical fertilisers depletes the soil. This means that microorganisms and earthworms can no longer break down or recycle organic matter. As a result, soil fertilisation and ventilation decline, which promotes waterlogging. Gas exchanges will no longer be possible and plants will be unable to develop in the natural way. Because soil that’s enriched with living organisms is high in nitrogen, an element essential for crops. In soils lacking nitrogen, artificial fertilisers are added instead.
A priceless balance
When something occurs that upsets the balance, problems always ensue. If we fell trees that are home to families of insects or chimpanzees, they will die due to having lost their habitat. Another example with vanishing bee populations: these insects place male pollen onto female flowers, and without them the reproduction of blossom, and therefore fruit, is disrupted.
Marine biodiversity is vital, too
In the sea, plastic pollution and large-scale pollution give rise to dead zones and cause plankton to die off. Plankton provides food for a great many species, and also produces the oxygen that we breathe. Because the microorganisms that make it up absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen. It’s the same phenomenon as occurs in forests (photosynthesis). In fact it’s all bound up together, and although nature manages, despite everything, to keep its systems going by adapting, its backup systems are compromised. At that point whole chains of co-dependency are wiped out, taking a great many mechanisms essential to human life with them as a consequence.
We can mimic nature, or try to repair it, but taking the place of its actions is impossible. Whereas biodiversity is what allows us to eat, livre, breathe… The multiple benefits afforded to mankind by biodiversity that’s rich and kept intact are the result of complex exchanges and interactions between all those involved, however microscopic they may be. This perfect balance of the earthworm that improves ventilation in the earth while enabling it to receive rainwater to supply plants’ root systems cannot be recreated artificially. Artificial dykes are extremely costly, and in the event of flooding they are never as effective as tree roots when it comes to soil retention. If these “services” provided by biodiversity were chargeable, you can bet that we would do a better job of protecting nature, just for the sake of saving money!
What poses a threat to biodiversity?
Everything! Since living beings are everywhere, anything that destabilises ecosystems poses a threat to biodiversity: pollution of the air, soil and sea, and also the destruction of natural habitats due to urbanisation, deforestation, melting pack ice… As for animal life, poaching of endangered species does of course have major consequences, as does the use of chemicals that kill insects regardless of how incredibly useful they are.
When conditions change too fast, species become extinct due to having been unable to adapt to their new living conditions. It was already the case when dinosaurs walked the earth. Now, climate change is pushing animal populations to move as they flee areas that are too hot, encroaching on the territories of other species. It’s the case on land and also in water, where rising temperatures allow certain warmth-loving species to develop. Here, the loss of biodiversity comes from the overpopulation of a species to the detriment of all the rest, or its development spiralling out of control. Mosquitoes, for example, are very sensitive to variations in temperature and humidity, and some species that carry diseases are contaminating new human populations as they move with the warmth.
Pollution and global warming
Biodiversity is in jeopardy when certain animal and plant populations are wiped out, and also when the balance of one of its ecosystems is upset. Whereas pollution and global warming are the two drivers that radically influence and harm ecosystems. Most of the threats posed to the environment are now “anthropic”, i.e. down to human activities that give rise to pollution, over-use natural resources, destroy ecosystems and the habitats of animals which then have no chance of surviving. Disruption of the climate due to human activities that exacerbate the greenhouse effect is one of the major threats to biodiversity. Because the climate has always been the top factor in the appearance, evolution and extinction of species. It regulates and triggers changes in living organisms.
The accumulation of imbalances
Biodiversity can be subject to several types of imbalance at once. For example, on the coast of Brittany, green algae are invading the seaboard and crowding out other species. They have multiplied to such an extent due to the intensive pig and poultry farming in the region. This type of livestock farming dramatically increases the level of nitrate in the water. This causes the release of phosphorus and nitrogen, which the algae love. Intensive farming not only uses nitrate as a fertiliser on crops, but also produces it via livestock excreta which also contains a lot of nitrate. The problem arises when these green algae washed up on the beach release hydrogen sulphide, which can be deadly. An environmental and human disaster.
An unprecedented drop in the number of living organisms
On a global scale, every species is more or less destined to become extinct someday… But it generally takes several million years. The problem that makes protecting biodiversity so difficult these days is the scale on which species are becoming extinct, and the speed of this process. Life on Earth has been close to dying out five times due to environmental changes… But over several million years! Now, for the first time, biodiversity is vanishing faster than ever, which makes us feel helpless. There has never been such a steep drop in the number of living organisms in the whole history of humankind.
- According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity (IPB), the equivalent of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a million animal and plant species are under threat of extinction in the coming decades.
- Fish, mammal, reptile and amphibian populations have never dropped so rapidly: 100 to 1,000 times faster than the rates calculated for past geological eras, states the WWF.
- In the last 40 years, 60% of vertebrate populations have died out.
- According to the latest report by the French national biodiversity observatory [Observatoire national de la biodiversité], just 20% of significant ecosystems are in a decent state of conservation.
- In France, over the past 10 years, the bird population (which is a representative indicator of biodiversity as a whole) has dropped by 40% for goldfinches and one third for birds living on farmland.
Why can’t we turn back the clock?
Deterioration in biodiversity is irreversible. Extinct species will stay extinct, areas stripped by mining or forestry will never have rich soil restored to them, the Great Barrier Reef will survive but not thrive. Because the extinction or harm caused to animal or plant species may see them return if their environment holds onto its characteristics. Even if it means giving them a little assistance, like attempting to reintroduce certain species, as has been attempted. But these days ecosystems have mostly lost the characteristics that enable them to sustain life. The sea’s mechanism has been impaired by acidification and by the plastic pollution that is endemic in it.
How can we halt the decline of biodiversity?
The timeframe needed for greenhouse gases to dissipate has been estimated at a century. If we were to stop ALL CO2 and methane emissions today, we would see a drop of some 1°C by the end of the century. One little degree may not seem like much, but it’s a huge variation for the coldest and warmest regions, where one degree’s difference represents a real upheaval for the environment. With a variation of 1°C either way, ice will either melt or not melt, for example… And the rate of species extinction has never been as fast as it has been since 1900, representing a major environmental crisis. As well as decimating species and ecosystems like never before, globalisation, international travel and import-export give nature no chance of being able to build what has been destroyed back up. Although we can’t stop the process, we can nonetheless keep our foot hovering over the brake in the hope of slowing down the calamity.
Putting a price on biodiversity to safeguard it
Here’s an interesting avenue to explore: beyond legislation, beyond the resistance shown by citizens when up against lobbies, beyond eco-friendly public policy, this priceless biodiversity should have more of a price attached to it in order to be safeguarded. Attaching monetary value to biodiversity would make it possible to show (major polluters in particular) the cost of the prejudice sustained, backed by the figures. So this new tool could factor ecological aspects into project costing. If we were to calculate the liquidated damages in respect of every project that destroys biodiversity (destruction of hectares of forest to build a hotel complex, for example), an offsetting system could take shape. This is an idea that’s starting to gain ground.
Taking action in favour of local biodiversity
But in the meantime, we can make different choices as consumers to avoid products whose manufacture is very harmful to the planet. Out with fast fashion and its toxic waste discharged into waterways. A boycott on palm oil, produced through deforestation that sends precious tropical biodiversity up in smoke. A stop on plastic waste that’s rife in the sea. We can also take action on a local and regional level to protect flora and fauna, sow flower seeds to help bees, get people acquainted with permaculture and soil preservation or organise cigarette butt pick-ups. All of this action to support nature helps to save what is still salvageable.
Biodiversity is us, and everything around us, from the smallest creature to the largest, and each living organism fulfils a function in the grand scheme of things. When we talk about “protecting nature”, we’re talking about biodiversity without really knowing it. Taking action for nature is taking action for us, because without biodiversity there can be no life. Now’s the time to work towards more sound practices and be considerate of the environment. It’s now or never.
Biodiversity is irreplaceable. What would life be like if water were no longer fit to drink, or if there were no longer any fish in the sea?