There have been a lot of massive things brought starkly into discussion this year, and for good reason. Social justice, public health, economic stabilization, climate change – and more. It’s a long list.
There is one, however, which you may not be hearing enough about. It is the link between the things we do to our planet, and frankly, the ways we become sick.
If you don’t fancy yourself a “sciency” person and the term makes your eyes glaze over a bit, just stay with it. This is important and worth talking about as we work to understand exactly what’s helped make this year so challenging. Ideally, we’ll learn from it and not keep putting ourselves back in the middle of so many messes.
Biodiversity basically means “the variety of living things.” Instead of one kind of each living thing, nature does well with many variations. As life all tries to evolve over generations to be better at surviving in its environments, the range of different kinds of life creates, yup, biodiversity.
This network of interrelated, diverse life exists everywhere you look in nature, and this massive range in different kinds of life has actually been part of what’s helped keep us humans healthy and safe.
A Garden Analogy
Imagine a lawn. It’s all one type of grass. All exactly the same. It’s only a matter of time before some grass disease comes along and feasts on the grass. It exploits a weakness in the plant and suddenly, your lawn is kaput. Anything else you relied on that lawn for is now plumb out of luck.
Now imagine a garden, with a portion that is a grass lawn, but also with different shrubs, bushes, trees, garden insects – you name it. That same disease may still come along but with biodiversity, maybe one of the insects would turn out to excrete a chemical which stopped the disease and saved the grass? Maybe the roots from the nearby trees would help protect the grass long enough for the grass to evolve immunity to the disease?
The sheer number and variety of life in the garden helped make things harder for the infection. In this way, biodiversity is a team sport. Everyone helps contribute to the health of the environment and could potentially act like another hurdle for infection or disease to face. Thus, even in a worst-case scenario, you may have lost the grass, or maybe even the tree, but you didn’t lose all life in the area, the way you would have if there was no biodiversity and JUST the grass lawn. So you see, biodiversity doesn’t just mean “different kinds of living things” it also means the ability for life to go on in spite of challenges. It means limiting vulnerability and that’s really, really important.
Humans have tinkered, as it were, with biodiversity in many ways. The biggest has been climate change. As weather patterns have shifted, we’ve seen ecosystems change. To keep to our garden analogy, imagine if half the life in that garden died off over a few years because of climate changes. Now: introduce a pathogen. Suddenly the garden is not as resilient as it would have been, and it’s had no time to evolve in response. The pathogen has a leg up in this scenario and can do serious damage. It might even be able to evolve to infect the food supply, the animals, or the humans nearby because what stood in the pathogen’s way? With most of the biodiversity gone, the answer is: precious little.
We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know
The other super important thing to realize is that we as human beings don’t know very much. We know some things, but we don’t know how every. living. thing. interacts with the others. For a hypothetical example, we definitely don’t know which beetle in the Amazon might help keep alive the tree whose sap could fight HIV or cancer. We don’t know which bird might accidentally be helping protect the beetles. Someone going bird hunting might actually be threatening a medical cure we desperately need. But we don’t know for sure, because, again, we don’t know what we don’t know.
We can be certain there is a net of interconnected life on this planet. We understand some of it, but we don’t know nearly enough to be sure which pieces we can change without causing serious damage. We do know that climate change and pollution harm living things all the time; they basically destroy pieces of the net and we have no idea what the chain reaction from that will ultimately be.
Sounds dire? Well, cue the sad trombones: the pandemic we’re in is a direct result of these forces.
I know, not super fun, but important nonetheless.
Wait – The Pandemic, Too?
Yeah, the pandemic. COVID is a specific virus but its entire class of viruses, coronaviruses, have been jumping from other animals into humans more and more frequently. Coronaviruses are able to do this because we have reduced biodiversity around the world. It took hardly any time for COVID to jump from a bat in a remote part of China to the entire globe. (This article explains it really well if you want a deeper dive.)
And to anyone reading this who wonders if COVID started in China for political reasons, it didn’t. Viruses don’t know what country or body they’re in, and they definitely don’t come to America in an election year because they have a master plan to make a mess.
Gotcha, So What Next?
This is a problem of our own making. Which is a bummer but also super empowering: it means we can control the solution, too.
If you want to help, start by becoming interested in the environment. Start reading labels on your products and other things you buy. Ask where it came from, think about where it will go when you are done with it. Read an article that talks about the environment even if a bunch of it is new to you, or there are some terms you have to look up. It’s ok to keep learning! We all are!
When you see opportunities come up to make choices that help protect the environment and address climate change, take them! Speak up!
We are the sum of our choices. By making better choices, we can have better outcomes, and literally everyone needs that now more than ever.
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