Feature Story

Crossing the living boundary

August 25, 2016

By Thomas Lovejoy, professor of environmental science and policy, United Nations Foundation

Humans are a curious species. We are remarkably adept at manipulating, even more so at communicating and thinking symbolically and analytically. The result is a multicultural fount of intellectual products - scientific, artistic, humanistic and more – all fostered by our innate social primate nature.

But there’s also a dangerous underside – an almost narcissistic and myopic focus on ourselves. We tend to be absorbed by mutual grooming, in various forms, while ignoring self-created environmental chimeras even to the point of crossing planetary boundaries – exceeding the conditions, basically, which nurtured the rise of our civilisation.

The ways in which we are crossing these boundaries all have biological consequences. Almost by definition – even if this is not widely recognised – nothing is considered to be an environmental problem unless it affects living systems. By far the greatest violation is that of the biodiversity planetary boundary - because, in a sense, it is the sum of the impact of all the other boundary transgressions.

So it is not surprising that we are at the beginning of the sixth great extinction of life on earth. The difference from the previous extinction events is not only that a single species (our own) is causing it, but also that it is at least partly aware of what it is doing, and is capable of acting to stop the loss. Flushed with our apparent success, we are perilously close to losing a significant portion of the global commons which, in many senses, made the success possible in the first place.

Biodiversity largely occurs within national jurisdictions on land and within coastal economic zones (even though enormous marine areas beyond national jurisdiction cover almost half the planet). So much of the early history of the Convention on Biological Diversity was focused on “who” benefits from the immediate value of a species that has been newly recognised to have human, and therefore economic, benefit. That is why national GEF biodiversity projects are viewed as having both national and global benefits.

It has been important to set up rules about how such benefits could be shared. But, if taken to exclusion, doing this overlooks how much of them are generated not so much by the actual plant or animal species in itself, but from what science learns about it. Biodiversity is, in fact, a kind of living library for the life sciences, since each species represents a set of solutions to a very specific set of biological problems.

The concept of antibiotics, responsible for the health of untold numbers of people, came from the chance airborne contamination of Fleming’s laboratory cultures by Penicillium mould. That could have happened anywhere, because the mould is so widespread, but most species are much more restricted biologically and geographically. The class of medicines known as ACE inhibitors, for example, stem from studies of the venom of a new world tropical pit viper. The result: the treatment of choice for hypertension worldwide.

The point is that a major portion of the potential of the planet’s biodiversity lies in the intellectual realm of what investigators might do with it. This is, therefore, as much part of the global commons as a molecule of carbon-dioxide, released by burning a fossil fuel, which adds to the climate change burden of all countries.

Biodiversity provides vital goods and services, which – though produced locally by metabolic activity – have a global impact. These include: producing oxygen through photosynthesis; sequestrating CO2 through soil formation (simultaneously increasing soil fertility) and – since life is built of carbon, through the growth of organisms and the recovery and restoration of ecosystems; and fixing nitrogen through leguminous plants.

Other services – such as forests regulating watersheds – provide local benefits. New York City’s Catskills and the forested watersheds of a number of Latin American cities, for example, provide reliable water in both quality and quantity. People turning on the taps rarely give a thought to the biodiversity responsible, and – even if they do – they are unlikely to be aware that the watershed ecosystems are simultaneously pulling CO2 from the atmosphere. In Australia the caterpillars of subfamily of moths (mallee moths) are central to decomposition and soil formation for the “dry continent”– because they are uniquely capable of breaking down leaf litter laced with protective compounds from countless species of gum trees.

The time has come to halt the degradation of biodiversity which sustains humanity and the rest of life on Earth. We need to take on planetary scale efforts to safeguard the living global commons through massive campaigns to restore ecosystems and reduce the atmospheric load of C02. That would not only reduce the global rate of extinction to one approximating its normal, historic rate, but undergird sustainable development. The destinies of life on Earth and of humanity are inextricably intertwined.