by Whit Gibbons

December 16, 2002

I have written about biodiversity many times since Edward O. Wilson of Harvard University coined the word itself. In the 1988 book Biodiversity he presented some alarming facts that we should not ignore if we enjoy living on the planet earth as it is now. Fourteen years later we will be well served if we reconsider some of the concepts he presented. My impression is that most people, including many members of Congress, still do not grasp the urgency or the depth of the problem.

In short, we are measurably losing life on a daily, even hourly, basis. Tropical forests continue to be a prime example because their destruction is causing a species extinction rate rivaling anything the earth has experienced in 65 million years. Two points need to be considered. First, some scientists believe giant meteorites colliding with the earth caused the previous mass extinctions. Even if human civilization had been in place, we could not have prevented the inevitable destruction. Second, even the great elimination of species that occurred at the end of the last two geologic eras resulted primarily in the loss of animal species. Plants, the basis of food chains, were not as severely affected. Today, we are rapidly losing both plant and animal species in the tropics. But today we are the meteors. We can control the path we take.

Most people in the Temperate Zones just do not appreciate the impact tropical rain forest destruction has had and will continue to have on the rest of the world, despite the fact that some effects are becoming apparent to us in North America. For example, many of the birds that visit our neighborhoods during fall and spring in North America spend the winter in tropical forests. As these forests disappear, so will the birds. The process is gradual, a creeping problem that does not alarm us in the early stages. But how are you going to feel when you suddenly realize you haven't seen a hummingbird or an eastern kingbird in three years?

Birds are simply an obvious example of what we will lose when the tropical forests are gone. The tropics represent the savings account of the world's biodiversity bank. Of the world's land surface, the tropics constitute less than 8%, yet more than half the plant and animal species on earth live there. More than 40% of what was once tropical forest is now gone, primarily due to forest removal and other human activities. One prediction is that all the tropical forests will be gone by the year 2135. How many plants or animals have special traits that could be of value in the field of medicine? Every time another species goes extinct, we lose an opportunity to find out.

Examples of why we need to preserve the world's biodiversity are endless. But doomsday predictions usually annoy people. They engender a feeling of helplessness, and one tends to become angry with the messenger or refuse to heed the message. However, there is some hope, because we the people can control the situation. Through education and, if necessary, regulation we can prevent environmental destruction, especially by those who do so for their own benefit.

An environmentally educated society cannot plead ignorance about whether measures should be taken to assure the welfare of our natural environments and the species that comprise them. We can teach our children that every species is valuable and that we have the right to use and enjoy them but not to annihilate them or wantonly destroy their habitats. We can promote scientific efforts that acquire more knowledge about the ecology, distribution patterns, medical potentials, and food opportunities of the plants and animals of the world.

Let us spread the message, to our children, our elected officials, and each other that in addition to potential value for us, each species has its own intrinsic value, its own right to exist. We can become a society that appreciates the importance of biodiversity and how to preserve it for posterity. Then we won't have to listen to doomsday predictions about what will happen if we don't.

If you have an environmental question or comment, email

(Back to Ecoviews)