A tapestry of life — Biodiversity: our life support 'eco-system'

Nature uses only the longest threads to weave her patterns, so each small piece of her fabric reveals the organisation of the entire tapestry

Richard P. Feynman, Physicist and Nobel Prize Winner

Commenting on the disappearance of song birds, plant species and insects from the landscape in the early 1960s, writer Aldous Huxley said that we 'were losing half the subject matter of poetry.' Huxley had just read a powerful new book, 'Silent Spring' by American biologist Rachel Carson. First published in 1962, the book was widely read and reviewed and helped raise public concern over the use of pesticides, pollution and the environment in general. Rather than trivialising what was happening, Huxley's reference to cultural loss captures the essence of biodiversity, a word and a concept that we often struggle to explain.

Biodiversity comes from two words: 'biological' and 'diversity'. It captures the variety of all living organisms within and across species. In the end, biodiversity is nature in all its forms.

An ecosystem is a community of plants, animals and micro-organisms and their interactions with the environment. From the fleeting meeting of a bee and a flowering plant in a summer meadow to the great and continuous interactions of air, water and soil — ecosystems embody the foundations of life on earth.

As bees gather nectar, they also collect pollen from one flower and deposit it on others, pollinating as they do so. New flowers result and they interact with the air above and the soil and water below. Take trees for example. Their leaves clean our air and their roots purify our water by sucking nutrients out. The roots also anchor and nourish the soil — even when they die. Remove trees from an ecosystem, and soon air, water and soil quality will be affected. Add trees, even in a city, and they will have an effect, cooling the air and improving it.

We are all part of this 'system' but we often forget it. Ever since our first ancestors began to harness the bee, the flowering plant and the meadow to produce food through what we now call agriculture, we have been shaping and changing biodiversity. Farmed species and plants became products whose intrinsic value was monetary. From agriculture, we moved on to industrialisation, and where we go, nature must follow — no matter how reluctantly.

We have come full circle: by industrialising our lives, including agriculture, we have industrialised nature. We breed insects, animals and plants for market, choosing characteristics that suit us and our needs. Biological diversity is under threat at the grand and the molecular level.

Nature is often perceived as a luxury: preserving species might be very desirable, losing them might be tragic but ultimately it seems a price worth paying if it allows humans to protect jobs and raise our incomes.

The reality, of course, is very different. Take bees. Wild bee species are already extinct in many parts of Europe. Surviving bee populations are often new varieties gone wild. Now their populations are being devastated across the globe. Bees face a number of serious problems from pesticides to mites and disease to weakened genetic make-up. A survey of British Beekeepers' Association (BBKA) members found honeybee numbers declined by 30 % during winter 2007–2008. That represents a loss of more than 2 billion bees at a cost of GBP 54 million to the economy.

The point, as this example and others to follow demonstrate, is that losing biodiversity does not facilitate economic development, it undermines it.

2010 — biodiversity in the spotlight

In 2002, governments around the world committed to reduce the rate of biodiversity loss by 2010. The European Union went one step further and pledged to halt biodiversity loss completely in Europe by 2010. However, an assessment by the European Environment Agency (EEA) (1) shows that, despite progress in some areas, the EU target will not be achieved. Indeed, biodiversity is being lost at an unprecedented rate.

2010 has been declared the UN International Year of Biodiversity and the subject will be the focus of intense scrutiny and debate throughout the year. The fact that the target has been missed has already started serious discussion within the EU on what actions are needed to save biodiversity.

What is happening to our biodiversity?

Europe has made some progress in terms of protecting biodiversity. Over the last 30 years the European Union has built up a network of nearly 25 000 protected areas (2) across all Member States in an attempt to protect our biodiversity. This adds up to around 880 000 km2, representing 17 % of EU territory. This vast array of sites, known as Natura 2000, is the largest network of protected areas in the world.

Legislation on atmospheric emissions (air pollution), freshwater quality and wastewater treatment has had positive results, benefiting biodiversity. Acid rain, for example, which devastated forests in northern Europe, is no longer a major issue. Agriculture is becoming more attuned to the surrounding landscape, although there is still a lot to be done. Water quality has generally improved in fresh waters.

However, biodiversity continues to be lost at all scales. Arctic summer sea ice is receding and thinning faster than ever. In 2007 the extent of sea ice was half that measured in the 1950s. This has consequences for all the living inhabitants there — from the microscopic life within the ice to polar bears and humans. As will be explained, glaciers are also melting in Europe's mountain ranges with serious consequences for tens of millions of Europeans.

Around the world, more than a billion people rely on fisheries for their food and livelihoods. However, half of all wild fisheries have been fully exploited. The majority of today's commercial fisheries are likely to have collapsed by 2050 if current trends are not reversed. Back on land, rainforests are being decimated for food (e.g. soy and beef production) and agrofuels (e.g. palm oil) — developments that take no account of the many valuable ecosystem services the forests provide.

Over the past 20 years, butterfly populations in Europe have dropped by 60 % (3). Butterflies are valuable environmental indicators because they are sensitive to the most subtle habitat change. Their disappearance points to a much broader environmental change that we are only beginning to comprehend.

Did you know?(3)

  • Biodiversity is nature in all its forms.
  • An ecosystem is a community of plants, animals and micro‑organisms and their interactions with the environment.
  • An 'ecosystem service' is a resource or process provide to us by nature. Examples of ecosystem services include the provision of food and drinking water, the pollination of crops and cultural aspects such as the recreational and spiritual benefits nature provides us.

Why is biodiversity so important for us?

Biodiversity provides a vast range of 'ecosystem services' that we take for granted. Think of the insects pollinating our crops; the soils, tree-root systems and rock formations cleaning our water; the organisms breaking up our waste or the trees cleaning our air. Think of the value of nature, its beauty and the use we make of it for leisure purposes.

These are just some of the ‘ecosystem services’ that make life on earth possible. However, we have lost our links with many of these basic life support services and rarely even see them, or value them, for what they are. This fact alone has huge implications for our natural world.

The changing nature of environmental challenges

During the 1960s, 70s and 80s the environment was sometimes understood as a collection of separate systems. Policy and campaigning often focused on specific problems: smog in the air, chemicals pouring into rivers from factories, destruction of the Amazon, the plight of tigers, CFCs in aerosol cans. The causes were understood as linear or specific and dealt with separately.

Today, we understand the pressures on our environment differently. They are not uniform, or held in place by geography. What they do share is that they generally result — directly or indirectly — from human activity. Our patterns of production, trade and consumption are immensely strong driving forces, simultaneously underpinning our societies and determining our lifestyles, our quality of life and our environment.

Joining up the dots

Think of a child's drawing book. A child creates a picture by joining dots — beginning at number one and ending at the highest number somewhere else on the page. At the start, the image makes very little sense but slowly something coherent appears. Our grasp of the key issues facing society has developed from isolated dots to the outline of an image. We have not got the full picture but we are beginning to see the pattern.

Biodiversity is vanishing at an alarming rate largely because we have misused nature to sustain production, consumption and trade in our globalised economy. Our failure to put a value on our natural capital means that the prices for our trees and forests, our water, soil and air are low or non-existent.

In an economy where national wealth is gauged by how much a country produces and where increasing quarterly profits are more important than the seasons, it is often difficult to even see nature. Often, our natural capital is not even one of the dots on the page.

Managing the future

We are again in a time of reflection and opportunity. The pressures we face — whether economic or related to energy, health or the environment — can be fixed. We owe that to future generations. We will achieve most if we admit that we still know very little about our natural environment, its complexity and the effects we are having on it. We must rediscover our humility and look again with a sense of wonder at what is around us.

For more information visit the EEA web page on biodiversity.

In focus: climate change and biodiversity

Ecosystems are generally quite resilient. However, beyond certain thresholds, known as ‘tipping points’, ecosystems may collapse and transform into distinctly different states with considerable potential impacts on humans. Climate change threatens to undermine vital ecosystem services like clean water and fertile soils, which underpin both quality of life and the economy. We do not know what the full impacts of climate change will be on biodiversity. But we do know that tackling biodiversity loss and tackling climate change must go hand in hand, if we are to protect our environment. Ecosystem services which at present help to limit climate change, such as absorption of CO2 from the atmosphere by soils, oceans and forests, are seriously threatened.

A recent EEA report assessing the status of biodiversity in Europe shows that climate change is having a noticeable effect on biodiversity. The report, 'Progress towards the European 2010 biodiversity target' (1), studied 122 common European bird species and found that 92 were negatively impacted by climate change, while 30 were positively affected. This indicates that huge changes in biodiversity and ecosystems can be expected in Europe as a result of climate change.

The report also shows that grassland butterflies are declining severely; their populations have fallen by 60 % since 1990 and there is no sign of levelling off. The main driver behind this decline is thought to be changes in rural land use — primarily intensified farming and abandonment of land by farmers. As the majority of grasslands in Europe require active management by humans or their livestock, butterflies also depend on the continuation of these activities.

1. EEA, Progress towards the European 2010 biodiversity target


3. Convention on Biological Diversity, Article 2