What is biodiversity and why is it important?
Biodiversity (or biological diversity) means the total variety of plants, animals and micro-organisms on Planet Earth, including their genes and ecosystems of which they form part. Over 90% of the Earth’s biomass (total mass of living organisms) exists in the oceans.
We are repeatedly told that it is essential that we retain the very diverse range of micro-organisms, plants, animals and birds that share Earth with us. Why is biodiversity so important? Why can’t humans simply take over the planet from all the other species and do our own thing with it?
The short answer to that question is that all life on Earth is a complex web of interdependency. The more scientists probe life and living things, the more they recognize the role that multiple species play in maintaining and regulating the environment for other species. The air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, the climate we experience and the effects on our psyche all depend to some extent on a diversity of species of other living organisms.
Although we still only partly understand it, humans have evolved from, but remain an integral part of, a huge web of delicately interacting complex systems that all depend for their existence on others. The outputs of one species become the inputs for others. The more species there are, the more complex the web and the more resilient it is to outside destructive forces. Conversely, the less complex and intricate the web, the more vulnerable the whole web becomes to outside forces.
Australia has an immense number of unique and unusual plants, animals and micro-organisms, thought to number over one million species. Not only is this living resource part of our cultural identity, it is essential for our survival and quality of life.
Biodiversity is changing
Human activities have exerted a profound influence on species extinction, through hunting and harvesting, habitat destruction, inefficient use of soil and water resources, introduction of exotic species, release of foreign chemicals into the environment, and recently indirectly through climate change from excessive burning of fossil fuels. As in other parts of the world, extinction of species is proceeding at an alarming rate and there is no end in sight
The 2001 State of Environment Report said that salinity, land clearing, changing patterns of water flow and ‘fragmentation of ecosystems’ – breaking the connected areas needed to support some species into a series of small remnants are having devastating effects. Thus, the ethically unsupportable practice of clear-felling old growth forests for woodchips destroys not only trees but the many thousands of plants and animals associated with them.
Besides protecting biodiversity, the preservation of Australia’s unique landscapes and seascapes offers other benefits. These include: promotion of human health and wellbeing through exercise in the open air; promotion of tourism; educational opportunities for the younger generation to learn about our relationships with, and responsibilities towards, the natural environment, which Aboriginal peoples have experienced for many millennia.
What can be done to preserve biodiversity?
Firstly we must stop clearing land and clear-felling native forests.
Over recent years numerous community groups, conservation, industry and government bodies have cooperated on environmental projects. The Landcare movement is now working hard to integrate conservation of biodiversity into agricultural and pastoral production.
While there are many local benefits from re-vegetation and restoration programs, repair and reconstruction is far more expensive than protection of existing ecosystems. This resembles the old health adage that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Possible SEE-Change Centre activities to maintain biodiversity
- Suburban “town meetings” about “Why is biodiversity important and why should we care about it?”
- Static displays on the role that biodiversity plays in our daily lives
- Displays of posters, photographs, paintings and poetry about the natural world and the importance of biodiversity to its integrity.
- Promotion of local school visits to local and regional parks and nature reserves to enjoy, observe and record the wide variety of animal and plant life around the ACT and its coastline.
- Public meetings with elected representatives to explore differing ways to protect biodiversity in the local area
- With the assistance of local high school children, collection of data about functional biodiversity in Australia
- Developing a reference collection that people in the area can consult on biodiversity.
Biodiversity chapter in State of the Environment (2011): www.environment.gov.au/science/soe/2011-report/8-biodiversity/2-state-and-trends/2-7-assessing
Backyard biodiversity: www.csiro.au/helix