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Wild SolutionsHow Biodiversity Is Money in the Bank, Second Edition
By Andrew J. Beattie
Yale University PressCopyright © 2004 Andrew J. Beattie
All right reserved.
All we have yet discovered is but a trifle in comparison with what lies hid in the great treasury of nature -Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, 1708
In this book we explore what is known about the plants, animals, and microbes on Earth from the point of view of what they do for us: how they keep us alive, how they feed us, how they sustain our economy, how they are a source of immense wealth and well-being that we are still just beginning to understand. We will find that we depend on an extraordinary assortment of populations, species, and natural communities. This variety is known as biological diversity, or biodiversity for short.
The history of civilization is a history of human beings as they become increasingly knowledgeable about biological diversity. Over many centuries, men and women throughout the world have observed the variety of organisms around them and have identified thousands of useful species. Roman mythology depicted them as flowing from the horn of plenty, a ram's horn held by Ceres, the Mother Earth who was charged with the protection of agriculture and all it produced. Mythology the story may have been, but it was a clear recognition of the many species that made civilization possible and kept it supplied with everything people had needed for centuries.
Today, we are still dependent on much the same variety of animals and plants, both wild and domesticated. When asked to think of useful plant species, most of us can name a whole array: rice, corn, wheat, barley, oats, apples, bananas, plums, cabbage, broccoli, lettuces, carrots, onions, dates, rubber, quinine, peppers, cinnamon, oregano, roses, daffodils, orchids, oaks, pines, redwoods, coconuts, breadfruit, potatoes, watercress, lotus, seaweeds, grapes, peas, beans, coffees, teas, olives, peanuts, cotton, sunflowers, pineapples, millet, sugar peaches, bamboo, and oranges. Most of us, with a little thought, can add more plants to this list-but how many more?
If we look at J. C. T. Uphof's amazing Dictionary of Economic Plants and delve into just one page at random, say page 95, we find among the entries: Calamus ovoideus, a palm from Sri Lanka whose young leaves are edible, either raw or cooked; Calamus rotang from Bengal and other parts of India, whose stems are made into rattan furniture, ropes, and baskets; Calandrinia balonensis from Australia, which has fruit eaten by both indigenous and settler Australians; and Calanthe mexicana, an orchid from Central America and the West Indies whose ground petals are effective in stopping nosebleeds! Uphof's book contains more than five hundred pages and describes another ten thousand unfamiliar plant species known to be useful to at least one human culture. The dictionary lays out a veritable treasure trove of foods, beverages, medicines, fibers, dyes, and construction materials far greater than most of us imagine.
Animal diversity has also been a major resource for human cultures worldwide, providing cattle, sheep, pigs, horses, chickens, ducks, turkeys, llamas, alpacas, guinea pigs, guinea fowl, reindeer, geese, donkeys, goats, camels, yaks, buffalo, and a range of fish from sardines to sharks. Animal diversity has also provided more modest but highly valued resources such as honey bees, scallops, oysters, lobsters, and crayfish; and we should not forget that cultures around the world rely on a huge variety of animal foods, including insects such as caterpillars, grasshoppers, ants, and beetle larvae. None of these are eaten out of desperation, but rather because they are abundant, tasty, and nutritious. Fungi have been another important source of nutrition, either through yeasts used in baking and brewing or through edible mushrooms.
Human beings have already made use of many thousands of species. In this book we shall show that, one way or another, our dependence on biological diversity is still growing rapidly. Our exploration of the species with which we share the planet is full of surprises as we find that many species on which we depend are unexpected: new antibiotics from ants and termites; life-saving medicines from leeches and parasitic worms; construction materials from snails and spiders; robots inspired by insects and earthworms; bacteria, fungi, and mites running major industries and public services. Most people believe that our future depends on electronics, computers, and space-age transportation. In fact, that future is equally bound to a host of mostly tiny organisms that we are only beginning to understand. We will see, for example, that the creatures that live in our soils are worth far more to us than all the products of Silicon Valley.
The species of Earth are our biological wealth and, like any capital, should not be squandered or thrown away. As this wealth is revealed in the following pages, it is prudent to assess whether or not we are taking care of it. If we imagine that the ten to twenty million species on Earth are the equivalent of that many safe deposit boxes in a vast bank called Nature, then most of them remain unopened and we are ignorant of the contents. As we open more and more of them, the contents will prove to be of immense value to society. More sobering is the thought that large numbers of these boxes are being destroyed before we know the treasures within.
We share the world with millions of other species. Most of them are tiny and little known to us. What are their names and what do they do? A new branch of science that studies biological diversity is determining the answers to those questions. Innovative technologies have shown us the enormous and previously unsuspected variety of the biological world. Exploring the natural world is a story of the daily discovery of new species and inventive ways of making a living, and this inquiry is the focus of Chapter 2.
In Chapters 3 through 7 we focus on the biological diversity that sustains the natural ecological systems that keep us alive. In addition, we see that in some cases we can build on this diversity to create new industries. Millions of species interact with their environments and with one another, engineering the mechanisms that regulate the air, water, and soils on which we depend. They have evolved technologies, most often at the molecular level, that break down domestic, agricultural, and industrial wastes. They provide the majority of pest control in agriculture, horticulture, and forestry. All these activities are the basis of human civilization. We do not claim for one moment that these systems have developed specifically for human use; rather, they are the natural products of the activities of vast numbers of species that have evolved over millions of years and allowed human beings to create the diversity of cultures we know today.
The kaleidoscope of populations, species and communities that we know as biological diversity generates, among other things, our food supply and therefore is the foundation of all our food industries -farming, ranching, and fisheries, plus of course the businesses such as trucking and machinery manufacture as well as the financial institutions associated with them. Forestry is another industry based on biodiversity-not just the trees but the minute organisms that generate soil fertility and pest control. Tourism, by taking advantage of immense natural collections of species such as those found in national parks and marine reserves, is dependent on biological diversity too. In the last ten years, tourism has become the single largest global industry. All of this economic activity, involving trillions of dollars annually, starts with the biological diversity that operates the natural systems in which we build our cities and towns.
In Chapters 8 through 12 we explore biological diversity as a source of completely new resources. The two basic requirements are human imagination and the diversity of life on Earth. We introduce a new way to explore biological diversity that takes advantage of everything we know about natural history, ecology, and evolution. Its basis is very simple. If we are looking for a solution to a human problem, we ask an elementary but powerful question: Where might that solution have evolved in the wild? This concept is introduced in Chapter 8, and the following chapters show how a wide variety of species and natural products are rapidly expanding the horizons of established industries and professions such as medicine and pharmaceuticals, pest control, farming, and construction. If the biological resources of the world are represented by a giant iceberg, we have only seen the very tip.
The exploration of biological diversity leads to discoveries that make our way of life more sustainable; that is, they allow us to lead full and productive lives without jeopardizing the resources and the environments that our children, and our children's children, will need. We are then better able to understand our role in the natural world and know how to avoid the big mistakes such as pollution and soil loss. Biological diversity keeps us alive and, beyond that, is the key to a dazzling variety of economic opportunities-many based on obscure, tiny, and often very strange creatures. It is vital that species not go extinct: there is no way of knowing which will turn out to be important (see Figure 1).
We end this book with a chapter about the future. Most people think it wrong to squander wealth or throw it away. Biological wealth is no exception, and conservation efforts are under way in national parks, marine reserves, zoos, botanical gardens, and seed banks around the globe. Industries that are directly dependent on natural ecosystems (farming, grazing, forestry, fisheries, tourism) are searching for ways to preserve the biological wealth, the biological capital, they use. Similarly, human societies, all of which rely on natural ecosystems to dispose of their domestic, industrial, and agricultural wastes, are looking for ways to keep those services intact. To allow extinctions of populations and species is both foolish and selfish-foolish because of the lost opportunities, selfish because of the loss to the next generation, if not to ours.
Why are we so concerned about populations? Simply because populations are where innovation within a species takes place. For example, studies show that a species of grass common in parts of Wales has local populations that are adapted to living on soils containing levels of heavy metals that are normally toxic. This innovation means that the species can occupy a wider range of habitats than most of its competitors. Genes useful for breeding new crop plants often occur in only a few populations of their wild relatives. If those populations are destroyed, the opportunity is gone. Those of us who live in cities have become aware of populations of plant species adapted to colonizing roadsides and railroad tracks, and even populations of birds of prey that have adapted to rooftop nesting and hunting rats and pigeons. All species are made up of many populations, each of which is a little different from the others. Reduction in the number of populations in a species means that it is losing its ability to innovate, to change. It is a danger signal. When it occurs, the species is called threatened or endangered. Many of our most vulnerable species have only a few populations left, and some have only one.
In light of our dependence on biological diversity, it is worth thinking about supply. How much is available and if we mess up, where can we get more? We are often careless with things because we know that they can be replaced-or we believe that modern technology will find a source. Instead, with regard to biological diversity, we should ask: Can we make new species, and if not, is there somewhere else we can get them? In spite of the hype that surrounds biological technology, we are still a long way from being able to create life, let alone make a complex organism such as a bacterium or a moose. The scientific reality is that we will not be able to achieve this goal in the foreseeable future. So there is little chance of being able to make new species.
What about finding them elsewhere? No life has yet been found anywhere else in the universe. And if we did find life on some distant planet, would we dare to bring it home? As far as we know, we and all the other species on Earth are alone. There is no alternative supply; the organisms with which we live and on which we depend are completely irreplaceable. We cannot create them or obtain them from another source. This stark situation means that exploring, discovering, and understanding the biological diversity of our world is just about the most important task confronting us.
While our approach in this volume is pragmatic, we share with most people the simple feeling that the creatures of Earth are absolutely critical to the human spirit. The fact that all over the world people keep pets, cultivate gardens, maintain aquariums, go bird watching, enjoy nature videos, and take vacations in places of natural beauty, reminds us of another suite of values of biodiversity: those that give us peace and contentment.
Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, who lived from 1632 to 1723, was one of our earliest microscopists. His were exciting times, because microscopes were revealing structures and organisms never before imagined. In 1708 van Leeuwenhoek wrote the sentence at the start of this chapter. Those words remain as true today as they were three centuries ago.
Excerpted from Wild Solutions by Andrew J. Beattie Copyright © 2004 by Andrew J. Beattie. Excerpted by permission.
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