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You can save the world!

Preserving a substantial amount of biodiversity is critical to a healthy future for us, but how best to do that has been a subject of ongoing debate, reports Sanchita Sharma.

delhi Updated: Aug 18, 2008 01:44 IST
Sanchita Sharma

Even if you don’t like the outdoors, you are probably pretty fond of air, clean water and food. That makes you a fan of biodiversity, because those essentials for life-human and otherwise-are maintained as a direct result of the earth’s biodiversity, the abundance and variety of species on the planet.

Preserving a substantial amount of biodiversity is critical to a healthy future for us, but how best to do that has been a subject of ongoing debate.

A multi-pronged approach is the only way humanity can pull it off, say Stanford biologists Paul Ehrlich and Robert Pringle.

In an article to be published next week in the online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, they argue that it is going to require not just governments but everyone to pitch in, on the individual level and in small groups.

The good news is that everyone can. While many people think only government-level action can have a significant impact, many small effective efforts are already making a difference. “What is needed is for these small-scale efforts to be implemented more broadly and scaled up dramatically,” says Ehrlich.

“Only through tackling the state of the environment on all fronts and with a variety of approaches will we be able to call a halt to environmental degradation, global climate disruption and the ongoing mass extinction of species. If we fail, we will have a world of dirtier air, scarce or undrinkable water and inadequate supplies of food,” he says.

Even as small an action as choosing to eat less meat results can lower the resource drain on earth as the farming of livestock results in atmospheric and water pollution.

Meat consumption has doubled in the world in the last 50 years. “Animals not only eat more food than they produce as edible meat but it takes 200 times the amount off water to produce one kg of meat as it does to grow one kg of soya, which is another form of protein,” says Ehrlich.

Other actions that will have a positive impact on the environment are stabilising human population, reducing consumption and taking a series of steps to ensure the efficacy and permanence of conservation areas.
Ehrlich liken each action to a “wedge”. Even though a particular action might start out small, as more people participate and the size of the effort grows, so does its impact.

And just as many hands make work lighter, many wedges combine to have a significant effect of keeping down the rates of species extinction and destruction of habitats, thereby preserving biodiversity.

The authors also recommend other “wedges,” such as reclaiming degraded land, reintroducing species to areas where they lived before human activity drove them out or killed them off, and educating people everywhere about the values of biodiversity. They note that increasing coverage of biodiversity on the Internet has vast potential for educating and prompting people to take action.

But there is still a lot of work to be done in changing people’s attitudes. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s draws flak for his plan to move 100,000 people to a brand new city being carved out of the forest in the vicinity of a national park to alleviate overcrowding in Caracas.

Noting that the typical mammalian species persists for about a million years, humans, who have been around for about the last 200,000 years, are in the equivalent of “mid-adolescence”.

“It is a fitting coincidence because Homo sapiens is now behaving in ways reminiscent of a spoiled teenager, mistreating its life-support systems, mindless of the consequences,” they observe in the article.

If things go on as usual, the loss of species and populations that supply critical ecosystem services to humanity will accelerate.

Despite uncertainties, “we know where biodiversity will go from here: up in smoke; toward the poles and under water; into crops and livestock; onto the table and into yet more human biomass; into fuel tanks; into furniture, pet stores, and home remedies for impotence; out of the way of more cities and suburbs; into distant memory and history books,” they write.

In short, the world as we now know it will disappear.