Why Is Biodiversity Important

Human beings depend upon biodiversity in obvious, as well as in unimaginable, ways. We spend increasingly more time in built environments, immersed in our virtual worlds, surrounded by houses and offices, streets and shopping malls, with "nature" contained in aquaria in our living rooms or manicured parks to which we drive. These environs disconnect us from the natural world to the point that we forget how important biodiversity is for us. Children in the United States now need to be taught that food in the grocery store did not spring forth packaged, ready to cook and serve. Yet if we were to put a bubble over these built environments and tried to survive with no input from the natural world, we would perish in a heartbeat.

When we hear about species going extinct or ecosystems being destroyed, we somehow figure that other species or ecosystems are around to take their place, or that technology will help us invent a solution, or that in the end it doesn't really affect us. What we do not think about are the interconnections in the natural world, that any change in an ecosystem sooner or later causes a chain of reactions that reverberates throughout the system.

As an example, in the early 1950s, the World Health Organization undertook a mos quito eradication project in Borneo to reduce the incidence of malaria among the Dayak people. They sprayed large amounts of the insecticide DDT to eradicate the mosquitoes. It was quite successful; however, the DDT also killed a parasitic wasp that controlled thatch-eating caterpillars, causing the thatched roofs of the Dayak houses to cave in. Then, the DDT-poisoned insects were eaten by geckoes, which in turn were consumed by cats. As the cats began to die, the rat populations increased, and the Dayak were faced with outbreaks of syl-vatic plague and typhus.

We rarely feel individually culpable for the loss of biodiversity, although human activities are the leading threat to the earth's biodiversity (see Threats to Biodiversity). Ironically, that same biodiversity is critical for human survival; yet few people realize the value of biodiversity to us.

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