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Why it's important

A healthy nature is important to a healthy human society. We rely on the complex interactions of many many thousands of creatures more than we realize. It is sometimes hard to grasp because there are so many things connected in such complex ways, many of which we likely haven't even encountered yet, but it has been made clear that having a lot of healthy, diverse living things is important to human beings.

The maintenance of biodiversity is essential to all of the other social concerns
A couple examples: Much of our agriculture is dependent on nitrogen-rich soil that is produced from worms, bacteria, and other life found in the soil that you can't see or that you wouldn't usually think of when you dig into your ear of corn. Similarly, the ocean ecosystems rely on microscopic organisms that absorb CO2, allowing us to have breathable air. It is estimated by the head of Deutsche Bank's Global Markets that our current rate of biodiversity loss could cause a 6% decrease in global GDP by 2050.

In August of 2005, then-United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan warned that a failure to conserve and use biological diversity in a sustainable manner would result in degrading environments, new and more rampant illnesses, deepening poverty, and a continued pattern of inequitable and untenable growth. He noted that the maintenance of biodiversity is essential to all of the other social concerns that the United Nations and the rest of the world are attempting to address.

Wetland ecosystems play a vital role in treating water and recycling nutrients to improve water quality.Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Aldo Leopold wrote more than half a century ago about the importance of protecting species. He said "To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering". Unfortunately, we don't really know what all of the parts even are. For example, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which is thought to be one of the best understood national parks in the United States from a biodiversity standpoint, undertook an All-Taxa Biodiversity Inventory that found 280 species not only unknown to exist in the park, but that are completely new to science.

Below are some more details on the specific ways in which we depend on a healthy natural world:

Beauty and Culture: Although the most difficult to put a value on, I believe we can all agree that nature is beautiful and enjoyable to be around. Numerous studies have found that people are happier and more alert and productive when around nature. There are also specific cultural values that tie individual species to specific groups, such as fish in historical fishing villages. Nature is a major part of our culture, regardless of where we are from.

Research: We rely on the variety in nature to help us learn more about the world around us. There are tons of proteins and enzymes produced by tiny organisms that can have huge effects on the scientific world.

Soil Quality: Microbial and animal species, including bacteria, algae, fungi, mites, millipedes, and worms, break down organic matter, condition soils, and release essential nutrients to the plants. These processes are critical for allowing plants that we and other animals eat to grow.

Air Quality: Plant species purify the air, recycling oxygen for animals to breath and filtering harmful particles.

Water Quality: Wetland ecosystems absorb and recycle essential nutrients, treat sewage, and clean wastewater. Trees and forest soils purify water as it flows through forest ecosystems and can also prevent polluting of water by minimizing erosion and landslides.

Pest Control: About 99% of potential crop pests are currently controlled by a variety of other organisms, including insects, birds, and fungi. These are much preferred to artificial chemical pesticides produced by humans.

Waste Removal: Approximately 130 billion metric tons of organic waste is processed every year by the Earth's decomposing organisms. Many industrial wastes can be degraded into non-toxic forms by living things, turning them from toxic byproduct to nutrient supply for plants. Even if the waste can't be degraded or detoxified, many plants can at least store harmful compounds so that they remain out of the groundwater and our food systems.

Pollination and Crop Production: We rely on various animals from bees to butterflies to bats to birds to pollinate flowering plants which we can then appreciate for their beauty, their role in nature, and sometimes their utility as food crops.

Climate Stabilization: Living things act as repositories of carbon that help slow the build-up of atmospheric carbon dioxide, which could lead to climate change.

Avoiding Natural Disasters: Forests and grasslands protect landscapes against erosion, nutrient loss, and landslides. Ecosystems bordering regularly flooding rivers help to absorb excess water and thus reduce the damage caused by flooding. Certain coastal ecosystems such as salt marshes and mangrove forests help to prevent the erosion of coastlines. For example, the reduction in wetland area surrounding New Orleans was a cause pointed to as part of the severity of Hurricane Katrina.

Providing Food: One of the most important reason we need other living things is to be able to eat them. We are also helped indirectly by plants and animals we don't eat such as predators of pests.

Providing Health Care: The World Health Organization estimates that over 2/3 of the world relies on traditional medicines that are derived from plants. In Southeast Asia, for example, traditional healers use approximately 6500 different plant species to treat malaria, stomach ulcers, syphilis, and other diseases. A recent study found that of the top 150 prescription drugs used in US, 118 are based on natural sources. Of these, 74% are derived from plants, and a number of microbes and animal species have contributed to a wide range of medicines, including Penicillin. Many medications are based on natural organisms after the organisms were analyzed and new medicines synthesized to produce the medications, but some others actually use the actual organisms. Not only would we potentially lose the sources of these medicines we currently use, but we may also lose the biodiversity needed to find new medications.

Income Generation: All of the above services are related to the functioning of the global economy, such as the $2.5 billion US fishing industry partially reliant on coral reefs, but there are direct sources of income from biodiversity as well. Ecotourism is another important means of making money from a healthy natural space. People taking nature-related holidays contribute at least $500 billion per year to the national incomes of the countries they visit. In 1997, Cornell University scientists tallied the dollar value of all the services provided for humans on Earth with everything from ecotourism and pollination to soil formation and pharmaceuticals taken into account was $2.9 trillion per year, although another source put it at $33 trillion.

Up next: Where we are
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BBC Article on the importance and value of biodiversity.
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The importance of biodiversity from the David Suzuki Foundation
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United Nations Development Program - Biodiversity
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United Nations Development Program - Biodiversity
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United Nations Development Program - Biodiversity
UN article on the importance of biodiversity
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United Nations Development Program - Biodiversity
UN article on the importance of biodiversity
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United Nations Development Program - Biodiversity
UN article on the importance of biodiversity
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United Nations Development Program - Biodiversity
UN article on the importance of biodiversity
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United Nations Development Program - Biodiversity
UN article on the importance of biodiversity
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United Nations Development Program - Biodiversity
UN article on the importance of biodiversity
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BBC - Wetlands and Katrina
BBC article connecting wetlands loss to the severity of the damage done by Hurricane Katrina.
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