EnvironmentScience

Why We Need Nature

The planet earth is awash with a variety of ecosystems; groups of organisms interacting with each other and the environment in relative balance. For every insect, every plant, every microorganism, there is a wide range of creatures that are dependent on this organism’s life cycle for the perpetuation of their own; this doesn’t stop with the biosphere either, everything about our earth is dependent on the organisms that life and die on its surface. In the midst of what could possibly be one of the largest mass extinctions in history, if we were to lose a key part of this chain, every link of which is dependent on another, is there a way we could make up for it as humans, or is the cost too crippling to recover from?

It may be hard to picture a world without, for example, natural pollinators. Various insect and bird species are vital to the reproduction of flowering plants. Many of them have co-evolved so that they are dependent on each other as specific species to survive. When habitats are threatened, generally speaking, the specialists’ prospects aren’t great; generalists, such as nettles and rats, tend to fill in the gaps left by life that has been flattened out. Yet, there are ways in which we can replicate the process of pollination, ways that we can try to fill in the gaps created by our ecological carelessness. The problem is, that there’s always a cost, and in this case it’s in the tens of millions.

So yeah, that’s a hurdle and a half.

The natural processes that organisms go through that benefit the natural world are generally known as ‘ecosystem services’, and the most obvious of these are only evident when they’re gone, whether it be a cleared out forest or a river habitat that we’ve altered; we often find that there are hidden costs to ecosystems that we didn’t think of, certain processes that cannot continue without the creatures that define them.

I particular we need to watch what we call ‘keystone species’; organisms much more important to their ecosystem than we would expect based on their numbers alone. In their case it’s not only their actions that affect the world around them, but that the ecological niche they fill affects the ecosystem as a whole. Essentially what you’re doing when one of these is taken out of the equation, is that you’re removing a plank from the bottom of a jenga tower. Now, if you have enough money, you can go out and get a new one, but so far you’ve only been playing with the set you already had, and a new one would set you back a couple of years (this is an expensive metaphor, hear me out). If you can replace it in time (which, as we’ve already covered, is pretty difficult), the tower might have a chance of still standing, but, given the short amount of time it takes to wobble, the tower will fall down and the pieces will be in disarray, having to start from scratch and fill new niches.

By demonstrating how much it would cost for us to replace these processes with manpower driven equivalents, we can draw more attention to how important it is to only make changes to our environment that are sustainable, and to look for hidden costs when renovating areas, rather than only looking at the legal and economic factors involved.

But when we’re talking about this, don’t just think animals, despite their costs being staggering. We have food crops, trees that absorb CO2, a process which we don’t really have any efficient way of replicating yet, plants from which we can derive drugs, and as a short thought experiment, try and picture how difficult it would be to find a synthetic method of nutrient cycling efficient enough to keep the biosphere going.

I don’t want to sound like a hippy, I’m not suggesting we all start hiding under our tables and screaming, but what I am suggesting is that we try to be aware of the cost we’re having on the environment, and how we can reduce the impact on our dwindling resources, because once they’re gone, we’re going to have a hell of a job trying to mop it all up and stick the pieces back together.

[image credit: BBC]

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Cat Strickson

Cat Strickson

Cat, or Elly, or Eddy, or whatever name they're going by these days, is a British palaeontologist and fantasy author. It's a pretty awesome skill set, but it doesn't pay much right now. They enjoy science, history, vidyagames and all things SFF.

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