Saturday, November 23, 2013

Why Are Plants And The Rest Of The World's Biodiversity Important?

Our lives as human beings are truly gifts. We arrive on a planet that has been seemingly prepared for us: everything we need (and so much more) is here, made possible in large part by plants.

Although not something that regularly crosses most of our minds, plants are the supporters, either directly or indirectly, of almost all macroscopic life, including humans and spiders. One could argue that the sun, or the air, or water, or our geological foundations are actually the ultimate physical sources of life, and I would agree, but plants are the ones who have taken these ingredients and manipulated them in a way that has made possible life the likes of which the world would not know otherwise. Plants are incredible transformers and producers, using sunlight, air, water, and rocks to generate complex living, moving, sensing organisms that in turn support countless other organisms.

Air, water, sunlight, and a bit of soil are all it takes to produce this incredible pink pineapple (Ananas bracteatus)!

Without plants, Kona Kai caterpillars would have nothing to munch on.

The fact that plants provide so much for us is one of the most compelling reasons for why we as humans think we should care about the health of the earth's natural environment. Plants provide the oxygen we need to breathe and the food we eat; they've turned much of the rocky surface of the earth into soil that forms the foundation of productive croplands; they are the substance of which fuels like coal, oil, and ethanol are made; they provide countless medicines, materials, seasonings, and fragrances; and they offer us many lessons we can learn for how to live better lives on earth. Certainly, it is hard to argue that plants aren't crucial to our survival and well-being, and therefore worth protecting.

Compounds derived from rosy periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus) are used to treat lymphomas and childhood leukemia.

However, if we move beyond these anthropocentric considerations of how plants and other creatures are useful to us as rationale for their protection, we find that, like us, plants are elegantly formed, incredibly complex living entities. Their contributions to global life-supporting systems are beautiful in harmonious function, and when you consider how the creatures of the earth all contribute, like tens of thousands of musicians, in their own way to a symphonic living world so much larger than their individual selves, it is truly cause to marvel. The greater natural world, of which all individual species play a part, is a wonder beyond comprehension and adequate appreciation.

The blue-coated seeds of the traveler's tree (Ravenala madagascariensis) are easily found by lemurs, who see blue much easier than red, orange, or yellow.

Although I certainly think the argument that we should live in a way to preserve as many plants as possible because of the goods and services they offer us is a good one, I don't think it's the best. What if we end up finding synthetic substitutes for everything we get from plants today - does that mean we then have no reason to care about the survival of plants? I think not. The purest relationship is not based on what you are able to get from others, but rather on who/what they are. If your best friend doesn't offer you any material benefits, they should still be your best friend if you are truly friends. Similarly, if your spouse became handicapped, you wouldn't abandon them because they can no longer contribute to the mortgage payments or chores around the house as before if you truly loved them. When it comes to plants and other creatures, I think they have a similar value that transcends goods and services and that our appreciation for them should not be determined by what they can and do provide us, but should be based on who/what they are: unique and astoundingly beautiful wonders of life. This reason alone makes them worthy of my respect and admiration, and in turn, my great interest in their existence.

Like this Austrocylindropuntia subulata, not all creatures are useful to humans or extravagantly showy.

The death of a species can be seen as a tragedy because of what goods and services, many perhaps unknown, we might lose from it, but I would say that if we have the right perspective, we would see the loss as much more than that. Extinction of a species, much like the death of a loved one, is tragic because it involves the permanent loss of a living creature who embodied life in a beautiful and intricate way no other creature did; and now that it is gone, that unique incarnation of life is, too. The  earth itself is now no longer the same; something of its beauty and function has been lost.

A frog resting on a leaf of one of our bromeliads.

More than any other species on earth, humans have incredible power to destroy or protect life. When contemplating the natural world, we understand that a world with a greater diversity and abundance of life is better than a world with only a few hundred species deemed worthy of continued existence because of their utility to humans. For better or worse, we are in a position to determine what the earth will become in the years ahead, and I think that if we are to make the right decisions in the coming decades and centuries, it will be most important to encourage humans to take time to marvel at the wonders of life (protist, plant, fungus, animal, and human) that surround them, understanding that each (even those we don't particularly "like") as an incredibly complex incarnation of life unlike any other with functions and relationships in the wider world far beyond our comprehension. When we focus on this, rather than on simply the utility of biodiversity for humans, we should feel an intense desire to use our unique position of power as a species as an opportunity to be guardians of this life rather than destroyers of it.

A dead coconut palm serves as a home for a family of red-bellied woodpeckers and food for an unidentified fungus.

An orchid produces new life from one of its stems.

Today, as I was finishing up this post, a tiny spider let down a line of silk from the back of my computer and gently descended to my desk. Suppressing the culturally-conditioned instinct to crush it immediately, I gave it my complete attention. I marveled at the way it produced such a strong yet flexible substance from within its own body. I presented a piece of paper in front of the creature, upon which it climbed and explored slowly and carefully. It froze as I began moving the paper off the surface of the desk, and in the blink of an eye, jumped back to the surface of the desk, a leap that was many times its own body length. I thought of the strength that must have involved for its size and the movement of all its limbs in concord to effect a perfect landing. I wondered if it breathes during the jump or if it holds its breath just before taking off like I do. I picked the spider up from the desk once again and this time it remained on its perch until I stopped moving. It then descended slowly to the ground on another strand of silk, and I watched it search out a place of refuge. As it walked slowly away, I knew it was good, indeed, very good that spider exists, apart from any use to me, and I also knew that I am extremely blessed to be able to contemplate the wonder of life it is.

Photo credit: Lasiu7 from

Rick Hederstrom
Associate Director

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