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The day may come when ethical considerations about biological diversity become our most important reason for species conservation. But in the meantime, if we want to hold on to our planet’s biological diversity, we have to speak the vernacular. And the vernacular is utility, economics, and the well-being of individual human beings.
In the 1980s, the question seems to be, “What has biological diversity done for me lately?” The good news is that the answer to that question is, “Plenty, and more than you realize.” Our lives are full of examples of the logic of preserving the plants and animals that we depend upon as a species.
Our food is a good example. Human beings eat a wealth of plants and animals in the home-cooked meals and restaurant dinners that we live on day-to-day. Yet one of the most immediate threats posed by the loss of biodiversity is the shrinkage of plant gene pools available to farmers and agricultural scientists. During the past several decades, we have increased our ability to produce large quantities of food, but we have simultaneously increased our dependence on just a few crops and our dependence on fewer types of those crops. As much as 80% of the world food supply may be based on fewer than two dozen species of plants and animals (CEQ, 1981). We are eroding the genetic diversity of the crops we increasingly depend upon, and we are eradicating the wild ancestors of those crops as we destroy wilderness habitats around the world.
We are dependent on biological diversity in ways less visible than the plants and animals we eat and wear. We also depend on them for raw materials and medicines. We depend on the diversity of plants and animals for industrial fibers, gums, spices, dyes, resins, oils, lumber, cellulose, and wood biomass. We chemically screen wild plants in search of new drugs that may be beneficial to humankind. We import millions of dollars worth of medicinal plants into the United States and use them to produce billions of dollars worth of medicines (OTA, 1984).
We use animals in medical research as well, though sometimes with brutal results. We import tens of thousands of primates for drug safety tests and drug production (OTA, 1984). We use Texas armadillos in research on leprosy. When human activities threaten the survival of these animals and their wild habitats, they threaten human welfare as well.
At the same time, we have to acknowledge that we will never be able to demonstrate an immediate, utilitarian reason for preserving every species on Earth. Some of them may have no use for humankind beyond being part of the great mystery. But who will tell us which species are unimportant? Who can tell us which level of extinction will seriously disrupt the web of life that we depend upon as human beings?
Environmental writer Erik Eckholm says that one of the key tasks facing both scientists and governments is to identify and protect the species whose ecological functions are especially important to human societies. And “in the meantime,” Eckholm continues, “prudence dictates giving existing organisms as much benefit of the doubt as possible” (Eckholm, 1978).
One of the important factors in providing those species with the benefit of the doubt they deserve is educating ourselves and our governments’ policy makers about our dependence, as human beings, on biological diversity. That education tends