The diversity of life on our Earth is part of the beauty and wonder of this planet. From the mighty seafaring Albatross that can live up to 50 years to the tiny mayfly which lives less than a day. Pay attention and you will see how wondrous each being is. Take the tiny humble ants, that form complex societies and share with humans the practice of taming and farming other species (aphids in the case of ants) and yet are so thoughtlessly crushed beneath our feet. Or the mighty Elephant that also has complex social interactions and mourn their dead. Each of these beings plays a role in the ecosystem it evolved to inhabit and adds to the richness of life on Earth.
Consider the animals, birds, insects and plants that share your own home. Maybe you are woken by the melodious magpie with its strong family structure and phenomenal memory? A friend has a lame magpie who has been visiting her home for many years for a feed of oats. While she was living overseas for a year and her house sitters were not putting out food the magpie stopped visiting. One day after returning home she chanced across the magpie in her little town and the next day the magpie returned to her house looking expectantly for a feed. This magpie continues to visit and each year introduces a new generation of young magpies to the feeding station. Or perhaps a Brush-tailed Possum, one of the few marsupials to have adapted to urban life, raids your fruit trees, nests in your roof and wakes you in the night with its bone chilling screeches? It may be a pest to you, but while abundant in urban areas Brush-tailed Possums are in serious decline in rural areas due to loss of habitat and increase in predators.
The intensification of our use and modification of this planet is having massive ramifications for the other species that also call this planet home. It can be surprising what creatures do share our lands of concrete and steel. It was delightfully strange to sight a Red-tailed Hawk in New York’s Central Park, but turns out that it it not uncommon for some raptors to roost in city high rises. Foxes, the plucky survivor that they are, will slip through the city parks and greenways and of course rats and mice do well on our food stashes. Sadly though these human dominated areas are not friendly to many plants and animals. Dip into the history books and you will discover a multitude of other beings that used to call our concrete deserts home, from the Bandicoot and Red Kangaroo of the Adelaide Plains to the iconic Tasmanian Tiger. And our impact is not limited to areas we live in. Albatrosses which spends so much of their life out at sea, roosting on remote islands far from human habitation have been found dead with stomachs full of our plastic waste. The sorry legacy of the throwaway generation that has created huge floating islands of plastic waste in the Pacific Ocean1.
Australia, an island continent separated from other land forms for so long, has a large number of animals and plants that are found nowhere else in the world. Since European arrival the continent has experienced the highest rate of species extinction in the world and its one major river system no longer regularly runs all the way to the ocean. So it it not just the digging up and burning all the fossilised remnants of past creatures that is destabilising the global climatic systems. Our destruction of other species and ecosystems is also contributing to the increasing instability in planetary cycles.
We all know that trees produce oxygen so vital for our survival. They also take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. In this way forests are important in reducing the level of greenhouse gases that are contributing to global warming. This is only the beginning of why intact forest systems are so important in maintaining a more stable, human habitable planet. Science is beginning to understand that forests also influence hydrological cycles with research finding that deforested areas experience decreases in rainfall2. So instead of forests existing in areas of high rainfall, the existence of forests generate a higher rainfall. While loss of tree root structures makes the soil less able to absorb rainfall and more susceptible to erosion. In this way water tables are not replenished and in heavy rainfall the rich topsoil is washed into rivers (or into towns causing havoc to the human settlements). The excess sedimentation in rivers disturbs the ecology of the rivers and affects the ability of these rivers to sustain the fish and amphibians that live in it. In this way the destruction of one area has consequences that ripple outward across the planet.
Grasslands, mangroves, seagrass meadows and all other intact ecosystems similarly help maintain stability and to absorb damage caused by disruptive weather events such as hurricanes, tidal waves and intense rainfalls. It is imperative then that our responses to the numerous eco-social challenges that humanity faces today takes into account how it affects other lifeforms. For both their sake and our own.
When Ecuador in 2007 requested the world pay to keep oil reserves in the Yasuni rainforest in the ground and this part of the Amazon rainforest intact, the international community missed an opportunity to prevent further climatic destabilisation and to preserve one of the world’s most biodiverse areas. Perhaps it was too early and globally we were not ready to move towards a new value system which truly recognises the importance of healthy ecosystems and instead of paying lip service to the ecological crisis, actually takes meaningful action. From this view we will be able to value and recognise the right of the forests, grasslands, mangroves and other ecosystems to exist over the resources that could be extracted from them.
All is not lost though. We can still move in this direction. Some starting steps could be to:
- Prioritise and allocate funds to ecological restoration. Lets create more greenways instead of roads.
- Allow indigenous communities to care for their lands instead of going and in destroying the ecosystems to make way for cash crops and extractive resource industries.
- Create planning and design standards that require human structures and settlements to allow for both human habitation and the needs of other animals, birds, insects and plants that are native to that area. No more creation of concrete deserts and massive energy intensive buildings that are unsuited to the local climate.
- Instead of the triple bottom line of economy, society and environment all human activity must be situated back where it must be, within the capacity of the Earth to support life.
I could go on about all the ways in which healthy ecosystems benefit humans but it seems to come down to why you care and what drives you to act. Is it to maintain the current dominant form of human society with its energy intensive and increasingly sterilise settlements that are populated by only a few non-human species, many of which are the same from London to Hobart? Or do you want something more alive and wondrous and gloriously unique to the area of the planet you call home? If it is the former then the mainstream focus on climate change and the simple solution of renewables and carbon capture will likely suffice to maintain human life on this planet. If it is the latter then there is the greater challenge of learning to understand the land and what it means to share it with all the more than human world.
This is not a challenge that can be solved by more technology and other quick fixes. Rather it is a slow and much more rewarding remembering of our place in this planet and how to truly look after it. We need to develop a society that has also has this awareness of the complexity and aliveness of the soil, the waterways and the entire planet of which we are but one part. Then just maybe future generations will once more be able to safely drink out of rivers, bask in the glory of a star filled sky and move confidently through landscapes enjoying the diverse abundance of this earth.
References & more info
- National Geographic. Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
- Fred Pearce, 2018. Rivers in the Sky: How Deforestation Is Affecting Global Water Cycles. Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.
- Charles Eisenstein Climate: A New Story