Tue Nov 6th, 2007 at 09:06:40 PM EST
Plants are the only source of oxygen on Earth - the only source. And studies around the world show that as plant species become extinct, natural habitats can lose up to half of their living plant biomass.
Half of the oxygen they produced is lost. Half of the water, food and other ecological services they provide are lost.
If a forest loses too many unique species, it can reduce the total number of plants in that forest by half, says Bradley Cardinale, lead author of the meta-analysis published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
"Those unique species are not replaceable. Nothing takes their place. It was a really shocking finding for me," Cardinale, a biologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, told IPS. "That's how much biodiversity matters."
An ecosystem is like a soccer team needing both star athletes and supporting players that act as defence and make passes to be successful. Highly productive and important "star" species in an ecosystem, such as trees, need many unique and complementary "supporting" species for the forest to remain healthy, he said.
Currently, one species goes extinct every three hours. And the rate is accelerating.
The PNAS study summarised the results of 44 experiments from around the world that simulated plant species extinction and showed that ecosystems with fewer species produce up to 50 percent less plant biomass than those with more "natural" levels of diversity.
"Our analyses provide the most comprehensive evidence yet that natural habitats with a greater variety of plant species are more productive," said co-author Michel Loreau of McGill University in Montreal.
The importance of biodiversity is not well appreciated by policy-makers or the public, says Ahmed Djoghlaf, executive secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).
"They are unaware of the consequences nor the urgency of the biodiversity crisis," Djoghlaf told IPS last September.
Many people have lost their connection to nature and think there are infinite resources. That relationship has to change, he said.
Now, I (and everyone else semiliterate in ecosystems theory and permaculture, many of them for far more years than I) have been saying this and variations on this for years: robustness is a function of fractal diversity and niche multiplication with exponentiating symbiotic possibilities; robust biotic systems are complex and synergistic, and far more productive than simplified systems; simplification reduces productivity in every sense except the industrial one (i.e. "easier to destroy by machine" and "requires only domination, not understanding or local knowledge"); hence, the apparent "efficiency" of monocrop plantation is only achieved for very narrow blinkered values of "productivity" and is in fact an encroaching vandalism and impoverishment.
And here is one more set of data to prove, again, the by-now-obvious-even-to-us, again, which the technomanagerial mindset will be, again, absolutely impervious to, in the same way that neocons are absolutely impervious to the existence of any problem that is not definable in money and fixable by establishing market value and "appropriate costing." When all you have is a hammer, not only does everything look like a nail, but you hotly deny the existence of screws and rivets, and demonise anyone who owns a screwdriver (possession of a SAK is punishable by exile or death).
One plant is not the same as another plant. When a niche in a mature ecosystem is destroyed, the system does not simply wriggle a bit and settle into a new pattern with all the same niches, but different occupants. It loses functionality in the same way that any complex organism loses functionality if you remove one of its organs or limbs or sabotage one of its endocrine reactions; it may live, but it lives with a lesser capacity and more fragility. It does not thrive.
We large mammals live by grace of the excess productive capacity -- the exuberant thriving -- of bacteria, fungi and plants, and at second order the smaller animals and animalcules that share that solar and photosynthetic largesse with us. If the flora of this planet sicken, weaken, and fail to thrive then so do we.
How many times does it have to be said? A hectare of monocrop tree farm is not the same thing as a hectare of mature forest. A hectare of ploughed monocrop maize is not the same thing as a hectare of prairie. The former may produce more Stuff with less human labour and intelligence, thus making it easier for the warrior and financier (used to be high priest) castes to disempower and eliminate the farmer/builder castes; but it produces less oxygen, and instead of building soil it mines soil. Which do we need more, oxygen or corn futures derivatives, soil or 8 figure salaries for the CEOs of ADM and Monsanto and Syngenta? Do we really need 3 guesses?
OK, so you're on a spaceship in the DS9/ST:TNG fictional universe and the Ferengi are breaking up the oxygen generator and selling the bits for scrap, or just destroying them for amusement. I've posed this analogy before, sorry if it's boring... but this article brings it back into sharp focus: by driving plant species into extinction we literally are breaking up the oxygen generator. It's not just a clever metaphor. It's real oxygen and there is less of it for us to breathe as each species flickers out.
Up to 30 percent of all species on Earth could vanish by 2050 due to unsustainable human activities, according to the 2006 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, an unprecedented international four-year research effort.
Without knowing how many species are "enough", it is impossible to know how many ecosystems will experience massive declines in the total mass of living plants.
I suggest that it is far easier for us to decide how much consumerism and industrialism is "enough". Which leads me not only to McKibben's rather good book Enough but this recent article by Monbiot:
On Sunday I visited the only UN biosphere reserve in Wales: the Dyfi estuary. As is usual at weekends, several hundred people had come to enjoy its beauty and tranquillity and, as is usual, two or three people on jet skis were spoiling it for everyone else. Most economists will tell us that human welfare is best served by multiplying the number of jet skis. If there are two in the estuary today, there should be four there by this time next year and eight the year after. Because the estuary's beauty and tranquillity don't figure in the national accounts (no one pays to watch the sunset) and because the sale and use of jet skis does, this is deemed an improvement in human welfare.
This is a minor illustration of an issue which can no longer be dismissed as trivial. In August the World Health Organisation released the preliminary results of its research into the links between noise and stress. Its work so far suggests that long-term exposure to noise from traffic alone could be responsible, around the world, for hundreds of thousands of deaths through ischaemic heart disease every year, as well as contributing to strokes, high blood pressure, tinnitus, broken sleep and other stress-related illnesses. Noise, its researchers found, raises your levels of stress hormones even while you sleep. As a study of children living close to airports in Germany suggests, it also damages long-term memory, reading and speech perception. All over the world, complaints about noise are rising: to an alien observer it would appear that the primary purpose of economic growth is to find ever more intrusive means of burning fossil fuels.
This leads us to the most obvious way in which further growth will hurt us. Climate change does not lead only to a decline in welfare: beyond a certain point it causes its termination. In other words, it threatens the lives of hundreds of millions of people. However hard governments might work to reduce carbon emissions, they are battling the tide of economic growth.
The massive improvements in human welfare -- better housing, better nutrition, better sanitation and better medicine -- over the past 200 years are the result of economic growth and the learning, spending, innovation and political empowerment it has permitted. But at what point should it stop? In other words, at what point do governments decide that the marginal costs of further growth exceed the marginal benefits? Most of them have no answer to this question. Growth must continue, for good or ill. It seems to me that in the rich nations we have already reached the logical place to stop. [Or even to cut back; and I would also note that for many tens of mio of humans, maybe a few bio even, there have been declines rather than advances in quality of life during conquest, colonisation and industrial resource extraction -- DeA]
Governments love growth because it excuses them from dealing with inequality. As Henry Wallich, a governor of the US Federal Reserve, once pointed out in defending the current economic model, "growth is a substitute for equality of income. So long as there is growth there is hope, and that makes large income differentials tolerable". Growth is a political sedative, snuffing out protest, permitting governments to avoid confrontation with the rich, preventing the construction of a just and sustainable economy. Growth has permitted the social stratification which even the Daily Mail now laments.
Is there anything which could sensibly be described as welfare that the rich can now gain? A month ago the Financial Times ran a feature on how department stores are trying to cater for "the consumer who has Arrived". But the unspoken theme of the article is that no one arrives -- the destination keeps shifting. The problem, an executive from Chanel explained, is that luxury has been "over-democratised." The rich are having to spend more and more to distinguish themselves from the herd: in the US the market in goods and services designed for this purpose is worth £720bn a year. To ensure that you cannot be mistaken for a lesser being, you can now buy gold and diamond saucepans from Harrods. Without conscious irony, the article was illustrated with a photograph of a coffin. It turns out to be a replica of Lord Nelson's coffin, carved from wood taken from the ship on which he died, and yours for a fortune in a new, hyper-luxury department of Selfridges. Sacrificing your health and happiness to earn the money to buy this junk looks like a sign of advanced mental illness.
It appears that, pace Sir Elton, Sorry is not, after all, the hardest word for western industrialism.
The hardest word is Enough.