To Scientific American, Re: Biodiversity

If a human population’s death rate or a nation’s commercial bankruptcy rate increased 17 times, it would be considered an unparalleled disaster. To consider this extreme-low-end estimate of the increase in the current extinction rate — not to mention larger increases — to be anything less is insanity.

More importantly, the truth about biodiversity [“On the Termination of Species,” by W. Wayt Gibbs] has nothing to do with accurately measuring extinction rates or numbers of species. As long as the extinction rate exceeds that of species generation, biodiversity will decrease, eventually destroying the ecosystems on which people depend — and us along with them. It is not a question of if — merely when.

As David S. Woodruff says in your article, the key is to save the process of evolution itself. As Edward O. Wilson says in your article, improvements won’t happen until the human population stops growing. But there are two crucial clarifications that must be made here. First, our real impact is based on the ever-growing overall human economy, based not only on our global population size but our average resource usage rate per capita. Thus, even at a stable population level, the economy can continue to grow and threaten our ecological underpinnings. Second, a point which far too many fail to understand: the human population increases as a result of increases in food production. Until we grasp — and act on — this ecological fact, anyone who predicts a leveling off of the human population based on standard models of population growth must be understood to be misapplying the model.

Which brings us to the real truth about biodiversity. Growth is limited here on Earth — and thus, by definition, unsustainable. Growth threatens species, including ourselves, and in many more persistent ways beyond simply the possibility of extinction in the future. As long as we pursue growth, we simply deepen the hole out of which we must climb. Land and species cannot be successfully set aside and kept pristine, since no place is immune to the flow of toxic substances through the air and the water table. Such attempts at conservation, along with improved measuring or modeling, will always fail to help us out of our hole.

But as soon as we give up growth in favor of dynamic equilibrium as the hallmark of economic strength, everything from biodiversity to humanity’s social ills will come to take care of themselves automatically and over the geological long-term — making measurements, computer models and even active efforts toward conservation unnecessary. People, businesses and the non-human world will work synergistically and all will be the better for it.

1 comment for “To Scientific American, Re: Biodiversity

  1. December 9, 2007 at 8:16 pm

    The real beauty of the systemic worldview is the suite of automatic processes that arise out of it. Because these processes are automatic, the input and effort required to achieve sustainability are low or zero. I also find a sense of comfort that comes from the thought of being supported by these automatic processes that have been tried and tested by natural selection.

    I hadn’t thought about the concept that even if population stays constant, with an ever-growing economy our unsustainable impacts will continue as well. But now that you’ve pointed it out, it seems very obvious!

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