The United Nations has declared 2010 as the International Year of Biodiversity. Not exactly a year to celebrate, as the total diversity of living things on the earth has been in steady decline for decades. Most of the countries in the world (with the exception of Andorra, the Holy See, and the United States) have long ago signed the Convention on Biological Diversity. This agreement has three goals: the conservation of biological diversity, the sustainable use of the components of biological diversity, and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the utilization of genetic resources. In 2002, these same countries agreed to at least slow the loss of species diversity by 2010.
It’s not looking much better this year, however. The Living Planet Index, which catalogs populations of more than 1,300 animal species, has shown a 30-percent decrease in the years between 1970 and 2005. This and many other indicators point toward loss of biodiversity among animals and plants.
Why does this matter? For any individual situation, we can’t really explain exactly what is happening, but we can see that it does matter. Recent plant studies indicate that plants actually produce greater biomass when there are more species present in the ecosystem than when there are fewer. As species are lost, the unique character that leads to the health of the whole system changes. Most marine biologists agree that overfishing has altered the makeup of whole oceans, just as deforestation for lumber production not only changes the forest itself but also can influence the weather.
Governments can act to identify and preserve natural areas and thus the diversity of life in them. Citizens need to demand and support such actions. In our own backyards, however, it may be just as important to maintain diverse plant life. Surprising numbers of insects, birds, and small animals can be accommodated even in urban settings. It’s high time we all took a look around to see what our personal impact is and how we can contribute to maintaining the richness of life on earth.