Termites in the Support Beams: Ecosystem services and biodiversity loss

The chaos of the Trump administration has given us some insight to what it will be like to deal with the escalating crises of climate change. There is so much going on that a lot is getting lost in the desperate attempts of our media to report on everything. It seems to be an effective way to confuse public opinion, and could well be the soundtrack for the downfall of our attempt at something like a liberal democracy.

Likewise, as the planet warms, more and more attention will rightly be paid to big events – storms that push the rising seas farther inland than ever before, or killer heat waves, or the troubles of climate refugees, or the wars sparked by climate-driven desperation. As all of that is happening, however, there will be other problems with more subtle effects. We are surrounded by plants and animals most people never think about, and some of them play important roles in our lives without any direct interaction.

Under Free-Market Fundamentalism, everything must be justified in terms of money, but I think that even if that wasn’t the case, knowing exactly where we fit in our ecosystems is a good thing. The term used to encompass the economic value provided by the rest of the biosphere is “ecosystem services”. To be clear – this doesn’t apply to things that we harvest or kill, but rather to the ways in which Earth’s “natural” ecosystems benefit us as a side effect of their daily existence.

A straightforward example would be insect-eating bats. If something like white-nose syndrome or a bad drought were to wipe out all the bats in North America, our agricultural sectors would have to spend billions more on pest control than they already do. Another famous example would be the manatee, which saves Florida vast sums of money by eating the plant life that would otherwise have to be cleared from the waterways through labor or through poison.

A more stark example is the oxygen provided by the planet’s photosynthetic organisms.

For much of the planet, we don’t even know the degree to which the biosphere benefits human societies, but as ecosystems continue to destabilize and collapse, we’ll start to notice their absence. A common response to hearing about climate change is to dismiss it on the grounds that the planet is so huge that we couldn’t possibly force any planet-wide changes. Not only does this show a failure to grasp the scale of our carbon emissions, but it also shows a lack of understanding of how the biosphere is an active participant in the planet’s climate system.

If you remove trees from an area, their absence dramatically changes the local weather patterns. If the wrong species goes extinct – what’s known as a keystone species – an ecosystem can be thrown out of balance.

And if the ecosystem is  already  out of balance due to rising temperatures, or changing wind patterns, or rising seas, then the outcome could end up looking pretty grim. There has been a lot of attention given to the idea that we’re causing a mass extinction, but it’s important to note that in many ways we’re still in the early stages of that. Many, many species are close to extinction due to human activity, and as the temperature rises, we’re almost certainly going to see them drop off at an accelerating rate.

The Permian-Triassic extinction event ended with over 90% of species dead, and unfortunately it’s very likely that that is the kind of situation we’re going to be living through by the end of this century. I hope I’m wrong about that, but avoiding it seems pretty unlikely right now.

The reality is that we don’t know what effect that will have on the climate, or on us. What we do know is that it’s likely to put a strain on all of our resources, which will already be strained by everything else going on in the world.

Our country largely views conservation and the protection of endangered species as a sort of charity hobby for hippies. No matter what the rhetoric is, the way our country operates makes that clear. For most Americans, the question of the Keystone pipeline, for example, was not whether or not we should be using tar sands bitumen, but how to transport the stuff because we can’t wait to burn it!

Ecologists, who spend their lives studying how different species interact with each other and their physical environment, have largely seen a very different picture of the world, and from that perspective, the less biodiversity we have, the more likely we are to see a “sudden” collapse that was generations in the making.

Keeping track of the changes happening to our planet will be essential to any planning for the future, more so now than at any time in the last few thousand years. If we’re going to build a better world, it will require an amount of social, economic, and infrastructure change that may be unheard of in human history.

Obviously, we’ve got some work to do.

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