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Biodiversity - Week 2

Biodiversity: An Exploration

These pages are being generated as part of a senior seminar course directed by Neal Williams at Bryn Mawr College during fall semester, 2007 Among the topics to be considered are

  1. What is biodiversity?
  2. What's happening to biodiversity?
  3. Why is it happening?
  4. Why does it matter?
  5. What should/can be done about it?

This week, a discussion of

  • Steven Meyer, The End of the Wild, Somerville, Mass., Boston Review Books, 2006
  • Balmford, A. and Bond, W. (2005) Trends in the state of nature and their implications for human well-being.  Ecology Letters 8: 1218-1234 


lila's picture

meaning of

what dose biodiveristy mean

Paul Grobstein's picture

The End of the Wild?

Interesting, provocative readings, conversation. What I came away with is a sense that we really don't know as much as we might (ought to) about the changes the biosphere is currently undergoing, and haven't given us much thought as we ought to what we want to do about it and why.
Yes, certainly, there are dramatic losses of megafaunal species, and yes, certainly humans are contributing to that. What is less clear to me is whether biodiversity on a more comprehensive scale is actually being reduced and, if so, for whom that is a bad thing. My guess as a biologist is that "life" will do fine, regardless of what humans do to themselves or the biosphere. Major extinctions have been a significant part of the history of life, and have contributed to its ongoing exploration of forms of living organisms (including the mammalian radiation from which we ourselves derive).
And yes, I personally will regret the loss of "the wild", defined as locations on the earth/bioassemblies that have not been perturbed by humans, and will certainly work to prevent that. But why exactly? For my own enjoyment/survival? Certainly, I prefer the kind of diversity that human impact seems to reduce. Out of some larger commitment to life? I'm not sure. Life's assemblies have been dramatically impacted by other organisms in the past (the presence of oxygen in the atmosphere, for example) and it would be hard to argue that was a bad thing.
Is there really a good argument, beyond human preferences, against "weedy" generalists and for more diverse specialists? Do we as humans really have the observations/understandings that we would need to decide what living assemblages should be preserved? Is there an inconsistency between wanting "wildness" in the sense defined and humans acting to protect/preserve certain assemblages, to say nothing of "ecosystem services"? Could that be seen as arrogant and, in a certain way, self-demeaning (human impact is bad?).
Those are some of the questions on my mind at the moment, questions that I think bear interesting connections to related questions about economic and cultural diversity as well. Looking forward to seeing what evolves in our continued thinking about them.
rkumazaw's picture

week 2 discussion summary

Trends in the state of nature and their implications for human well-being” and The End of the Wild had two different takes on the loss of biodiversity we are currently facing; while the latter places more focus on the consequences on nature itself, the former places more focus on the consequences humans will have to deal with. This enabled us to observe the effects of decreasing biodiversity from two viewpoints, although neither is more definitively important than the other. The End of the Wild,  not only discussed what is currently occurring to biodiversity around the world and the causes, but also what is being done about it, with a special emphasis on the uselessness of them, for this crisis “is over, and we have lost.”

During our discussion on this book, I pointed out the numerous contradictions that caught my attention while reading the book, one of which is the fact that Stephen M. Meyer writes that anthropogenic transformation, is not only due to our destructive activity, but also from our efforts to protect and maintain biodiversity, and yet he recognizes that doing nothing is just as harmful and that direct management is necessary to maintain existence of endangered species.
Although the first few chapters imply that Meyer believes there is no way to prevent the end of the wild, that none of the tools we use to preserve biodiversity can stop the rapid decrease of life on this planet, he suggests ways in which we can buy some time, one of which is the protection of landscape. This involves preserving selected ecosystem processes and functions. But how should these ecosystems be chosen? What makes an ecosystem the “right” one? In our discussion, we established that a “right” ecosystem is one that is resilient to change, one that can stabilize itself, and can maintain its ability to adapt. We also discussed the importance of variation between populations, as well as variation within populations, which is why a uniform-looking world would not be a beneficial change to the environment.

“Trends in the state of nature and their implications for human well-being” discusses what is currently known about the current status of biodiversity around the world and the consequences on human well-beings. In this article, the emphasis is on ecosystem services and the quantifiable value of nature to us. In this article, the value of biodiversity is implied strictly as tradable commodity. Despite the fact that The End of the Wild has a different approach and view of the quality of biodiversity, like the book, this article also suggests ways to prevent “the end of the wild.” One useful management tool in restoring degraded habitats suggested – the biological control of invasive species via the introduction of natural enemies from the species native ranges – however, is questionable, considering the danger of alien species, which is discussed in the book as a big issue.

However the value of biodiversity is viewed, one thing is certain. We need to conduct more research to fill in the gaps that keeps us from seeing the whole picture. Because without enough information, what must be done about it will remain uncertain.

Ashley Himelfarb's picture

Week 2 Post

I viewed Stephen Meyer’s The End of the Wild as having several equally important points. The first is that we have lost something, the wild. It is gone, not returning anytime soon, and it is our fault. The wild is lost because many of the organisms in the world are relics or ghosts, on their way to extinction. These organisms are victims of the extinction debt (pg. 14). A debt incurred when humans destroyed the wild through landscape transformation, pollution, and biotic consumption and manipulation (pg. 19). Meta-disturbances such as global climate change and globalization further threaten the wild (pg. 29).

We try to save the wild with refuges, genetic engineering, regulations and wildlands. These will not work. Meyers cites lack of funds, insufficient government cooperation, and the assumption that people will not suddenly start living in sustainable communities and reduce consumption (pg. 41). Moreover, all of these measure farther the processes of human interference with the natural system.

So what are we to do? Strangely Meyers suggests that we do more research, intensively manage natural areas and preserve the landscape. At first this seems contradictory but I don’t believe that it is. Meyers is assuming, remember, that the wild is unsalvageable. So we move on, to try and save what nature we can. We are animals on this planet too, with our own needs. Ecosystem services are immensely important to our existence. Our psyche also requires a bit of nature. There is value in making sure our children can see a tiger or giant panda. So we keep building reserves and making regulations to buy time while we research and come up with better ways to coexist with nature. Interfering with the wild has been its undoing and further interference will not save it. Interference to preserve a world with sufficient nature to sustain us physically and psychologically is both beneficial and necessary (pg. 87).

The End of the Wild is rife with possible contradictions and unsupported statements. The previous post gives examples of some of the unsupported statements and contradictions. Perhaps some of these statements are considered to be general knowledge. Additionally the reference style is probably helpful to most readers of the books target audience. The general public is unlikely to be concerned with where a statement came from and maybe it even gets in the way of the main point. Something has to change. We have to learn more. Then we have to change how we protect the environment and how we live in it.

Trends in the state of nature and their implications for human well-being took an overview of what is currently known about environmental changes and how they will influence humans. The paper raises many of the same issues as Meyers. It asserts that we are negatively impacting the environment in a large way and that changes in the environment negatively impact humans (abstract).

Both The End of the Wild and the paper by Balmford and Bond took an overview of the interactions between people and the environment. This has raised some interesting questions for future inquiry. Does homogenization of organisms decrease diversity (beta)? What about diversity leads to ecosystem functioning? How do meta-disturbances impact conservation practices? How are changes in species diversity measured? What is the pattern of diversity and why? How do ecosystems services relate to diversity?

maggie_simon's picture

A Summary of the Class Discussion

After a discussion with the group, it became apparent that Stephen Meyer’s main point in The End of the Wild is that a change in focus is necessary; the wild has been lost, and we must therefore focus our efforts on protecting those parts of the natural world that are important for human lifestyles, such as ecosystem services.  There should be little human interaction in the affairs of nature, but sometimes these are necessary, suggesting a human selection towards or preference of some aspect of nature. 

Concerns with the reading are that Meyer was inconsistent; perhaps the most significant example of which is given by the way in which he describes the loss of wilderness crisis and in what ways it can be protected.  He provides many possible solutions, such as prohibitory regulation, refuges and preserves, sustainable communities, wildlands, and genetic engineering, but for each he describes why the approach is destined to fail, suggesting that the loss of the wild is inevitable.  However, later in the book he supports protecting the wild (through research, intensive management, and preserving the landscape), despite his stance that such an approach is futile. 

Another criticism of Meyer’s book is that citation was very difficult to follow and was quite scarce.  There were many places where he gave a fact, such as how many species are going extinct per year (page 4), or an idea, such as extinction debt, but does not offer a reference for it, so the fact cannot be legitimized, nor the idea clarified (does the debt include extinctions that would result from the extinction of a keystone species in the system?).  Also, some of his assumptions proved problematic to the group.  For example, Meyer’s arguments rest on the assumption that moving towards populations dominated by generalists is a loss of diversity (an idea that he never proved to be true).  It was also debated as to whether a loss of diversity should be viewed necessarily as a negative event, rather than a stabilizing adjustment to the anthropogenic-influenced changes in the environment.

The 2005 Balmford and Bond paper entitled “Trends in the State of Nature and Their Implications for Human Well-being” suggests that more research is needed to enhance our understanding of nature so that we can better protect it for moral reasons, as well as for the well-being of humans.  We touched on the idea that ecosystems can provide important services to humanity which, in a sense, can be quantified economically.  The concept of hot spots of diversity was briefly discussed, and led into a consideration of global biodiversity patterns.  It was generally agreed that preservation of biodiversity required protection of whole system, not individual species.  Biodiversity was not only viewed as pertaining to species, but was also discussed in terms of genes, populations, and phenotypes.

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