May 222018

Today is designated as International Day for Biological Diversity (or World Biodiversity Day) by the United Nations: a day for the promotion of biodiversity issues. The International Day for Biological Diversity falls within the general scope of the UN Post-2015 Development Agenda’s Sustainable Development Goals. In this larger initiative of international cooperation, the topic of biodiversity concerns stakeholders in sustainable agriculture; desertification, land degradation and drought; water and sanitation; health and sustainable development; energy; science, technology and innovation, knowledge-sharing and capacity-building; urban resilience and adaptation; sustainable transport; climate change and disaster risk reduction; oceans and seas; forests; vulnerable groups including indigenous peoples; and food security. The critical role of biodiversity in sustainable development was recognized in a Rio+20 outcome document, “The World We Want: A Future for All”.

From its creation by the Second Committee of the UN General Assembly in 1993 until 2000, Biodiversity Day was held on December 29 to celebrate the day the Convention on Biological Diversity went into effect. On December 20, 2000, the date was shifted to commemorate the adoption of the Convention on May 22, 1992 at the Rio Earth Summit, and partly to avoid the many other holidays that occur in late December. The theme of the Day in 2018 is: Celebrating 25 Years of Action for Biodiversity

Coinciding with the observance of International Day for Biological Diversity, on May 2011 the Indonesian Forestry Minister inaugurated the Ciwalen Canopy Trail that is 120 meters (390 ft) long and 60 metres (200 ft) wide at an elevation of 30–40 meters (98–131 ft) above the ground at Gunung Gede Pangrango National Park, West Java, to accommodate five to ten people in one trip to experience biodiversity first-hand.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), biodiversity typically measures variation at the genetic, the species, and the ecosystem level. Biodiversity is not distributed evenly on Earth, and is richest in the tropics. These tropical forest ecosystems cover less than 10% of earth’s surface, and contain about 90% of the world’s species. Marine biodiversity tends to be highest along coasts in the Western Pacific, where sea surface temperature is highest, and in the mid-latitudinal band in all oceans. There are latitudinal gradients in species diversity. Biodiversity generally tends to cluster in hotspots, and has been increasing through time, but will be likely to slow in the future.

Rapid environmental changes typically cause mass extinctions. More than 99.9% of all species that ever lived on Earth, amounting to over five billion species, are estimated to be extinct. Estimates on the number of Earth’s current species usually range from 10 million to 14 million, of which about 1.2 million have been documented and over 86% have not yet been described. More recently, in May 2016, scientists reported that 1 trillion species are estimated to be on Earth currently with only one-thousandth of one percent described. Think about it for a minute: it’s possible that only .001% of all living species have been documented. I hope that boggles your mind. It is tribute to the vast ocean of ignorance about living things that we swim in, yet we claim to be oh-so-knowledgeable. Maybe in future centuries this period will be known as The Age of Scientific Ignorance (assuming Homo sapiens survives that long).

The Earth is about 4.54 billion years old. The earliest undisputed evidence of life on Earth dates to at least 3.5 billion years ago, during the Eoarchean Era after a geological crust started to solidify following the earlier molten Hadean Eon. There are microbial mat fossils found in 3.48 billion-year-old sandstone discovered in Western Australia. Other early physical evidence of a biogenic substance is graphite in 3.7 billion-year-old meta-sedimentary rocks discovered in Western Greenland. More recently, in 2015, what were called “remains of biotic life” were found in 4.1 billion-year-old rocks in Western Australia.

Since life began on Earth, five major mass extinctions and several minor events have led to large and sudden drops in biodiversity. The Phanerozoic eon (the last 540 million years) marked a rapid growth in biodiversity via the Cambrian explosion—a period during which the majority of multicellular phyla first appeared. The next 400 million years included repeated, massive biodiversity losses classified as mass extinction events. In the Carboniferous, rainforest collapse led to a great loss of plant and animal life. The Permian–Triassic extinction event, 251 million years ago, was the worst; vertebrate recovery took 30 million years. The most recent, the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event, occurred 65 million years ago and has often attracted more attention than others because it resulted in the extinction of the dinosaurs.

The period since the emergence of humans has displayed an ongoing biodiversity reduction and an accompanying loss of genetic diversity. This reduction, called the Holocene extinction, is caused primarily by human impact, and if I were to put my finger on the single most important event I would name the Industrial Revolution as the villain of the piece. The reduction in biodiversity can be attributed to a number of causes such as increased pollution, climate change, destruction of habitats etc., but they all lead to one principal cause: the expansion of industrialism. Fossil fuels used in industry and transport pollute and produce greenhouse gases, habitats are constantly destroyed in the service of agribusiness monoculture and industry, and so forth.

The Industrial Revolution had a gigantic impact on all world cultures in a cascading domino effect. For example, factories in Britain in the 19th century needed raw products for manufacture which led to massive global colonization and imperialism, which, in turn led to slavery and enforced labor, deforestation, land clearing, and other impacts that caused the destruction of habitats – not to mention the fact that the factories consumed millions of tons of fossil fuels which polluted the air and created significant carbon dioxide emissions. Soon the rest of the world was following Britain’s lead, and we are living in the wake of that fundamental shift in vision of how we want the world to be. This means that individual efforts to reverse the trends that are causing a loss in biodiversity are feeble – at best – and probably (in my ever-humble opinion) doomed to fail in the long run. We want to eat our cake and have it. We want all the modern technology we have now – and more – and yet we want to (somehow) not pay for it with non-renewable resources. I do not see how that is possible. My dismal prediction is that Homo sapiens will be one of the species driven to extinction along with the millions of others, but, of course, I have no idea when that will come about.

Certainly, we should do our level best to convert to renewable energy sources, shift to sustainable foods, and the like, as much for ethical reasons as anything else. But I do not believe that these changes will have a lasting effect on the inevitable outcome. To put it bluntly: Homo sapiens is not a sustainable species. In other posts, I have spoken many times about thinking holistically when making decisions about what to eat or wear, what energy sources to use, and all the rest of it. You can’t avoid eating meat because of the cruel ways that farm animals are raised, but drink coffee produced by slave labor. You can’t avoid wearing animal products, but wear synthetic materials that can be as damaging, if not more so, to the environment. In any case, this is not a matter for individual change, but for cultural change on a global level: and that is simply not going to happen. As long as some people are making piles of money from processes that are destructive of the environment and biodiversity, nothing will change until it is too late (if it is not too late already).

All that said, there is no need to contribute to species extinction personally, even if the final outcome is unavoidable. We can still take personal responsibility for our actions. Therefore, I strongly advocate eating organically produced foods (if they are genuinely organically produced, and not simply claimed to be by devious marketers, as they are so often in the US), which do not use pesticides that endanger a number of species; to avoid eating species that are endangered, or whose consumption endangers other species (as in the case of Pacific mackerel and tuna); and to be aware, holistically, of the effects of certain diets.

The food groups that are underused in the West, seaweeds and insects, are frequently vaunted as “sustainable” but I want to raise a note of caution here. No species is by definition sustainable.  If a particular insect or a particular seaweed is suddenly touted as “nutritious and sustainable” and there is a run on it because it has become a new fad, it is quite likely that global stocks will be depleted in short order, causing shock waves throughout the food chain. Seaweeds and insects have not been hanging about for millennia waiting for some human cultures to discover them as food. They have been eaten by other species for that time as their major food sources. They are also invaluable environmentally. It has recently been shown that seaweeds absorb more far more carbon dioxide than terrestrial plants, and, therefore, overusing them would have as significant an effect on atmospheric carbon dioxide levels as deforestation.

Rather than give you a recipe today, in light of these warnings, I am going to suggest a fundamentally important rule, namely, to maintain biodiversity, diversify your diet. You do not need to eat the same foods all the time to maintain your usual balance of fats, protein, and carbohydrates. I hope this blog has already made you aware of the incredible diversity of ingredients in the world. Today’s challenge, therefore, is to eat something today that you have never eaten before. It doesn’t have to be spiders or grasshoppers or kelp. It can be goat or squab or wild mushrooms. You can even use your normal recipes, just with different main ingredients. The point is to break out of eating the same foods all the time because by doing so you are contributing to a reduction in biodiversity. There are tens of thousands of edible species in the world, most of which are more readily available than you might think. Take advantage of them all.