At the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research, and at the Zoological Society of San Diego as a whole, we spend our days working to save biodiversity. But the truth of the matter is that biodiversity is saving us. One of the founding fathers of conservation biology, and my own personal hero, Edward O. Wilson, perfectly articulated this connectedness and dependency in his classic 1987 lecture entitled “The Little Things that Run the World.” During this moving speech in Washington, D.C., Dr. Wilson depicted a world where humans suddenly moved on and the planet worked to heal itself after millennia of abuse. He argued that the world would heal relatively quickly once humans were gone, but that if the opposite were true, if invertebrates, for example, disappeared from the planet, that the whole of the human race would likely perish within a few months. Trained as an arthropod biologist, I am an easy convert for Dr. Wilson’s message; I already have a deep love and respect for the “little things,” but I’ve made it my life’s work to deliver his message to others.
Now I’m sure you need not be convinced of the importance of biodiversity. Especially from an intrinsic perspective, we value all life on Earth for its beauty, for its immense impact on our cultural traditions and spirituality, for its proven psychological and health benefits. But it is for its more essential, tangible benefits to humans that we absolutely must value biodiversity. Scientists and philosophers alike classify these benefits into two main categories: ecosystem products and ecosystem services. Ecosystem products are the myriad of invaluable resources provided to us by other forms of life on this planet, products such as food, medicine, and raw materials. Ecosystem services, by contrast, are the non-replicable processes and functions that other forms of life afford our species, services that are absolutely essential to human civilization but that are often considered “free” and taken for granted, services such as pollination, soil formation, waste treatment, gas and water regulation, prevention and mitigation of natural disasters, and nutrient cycling.
I am very proud to work for the San Diego Zoo. I am given the opportunity, almost daily, to spread awareness about the incredible brilliance, importance, and staggering loss of biodiversity. We are using the best science available to restore and take care of biodiversity as it takes care of us, and we’re also learning from its proven genius, asking the question, “What would nature do?” As we face increasingly complex challenges with society, industry, and the environment, we are looking to other species for ideas and solutions on how to address some of the most pressing issues of our time. In this way, we acknowledge and embrace our dependence on biodiversity and regard it as our ultimate teacher. This process of gently borrowing ideas from nature is also referred to as biomimicry, and it will prove critical to our goal of inspiring people to respect and nurture biodiversity as our most important caretaker.
Maggie Reinbold is a conservation program manager for the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research.
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