The Earth, as an ecosystem, contains a diversity of life that has been shrinking as a result of human activity. A May 10, 2010 biodiversity reportreleased by two United Nations environmental bodies concluded that “unless radical and creative action is taken quickly to conserve the variety of life on Earth, natural systems that support lives and livelihoods are at risk of collapsing.”
Human prosperity continues to come on the foundation of exploitation of natural resources and the settling on land once occupied by many different species of life that are displaced and often driven to extinction. And, one of the goals of the United Nations is to end poverty, hunger and disease for the 7 billion people on Earth. More economic activity is required to meet those other Millennial Development Goals (MDGs). Thus reaching some goals, like prosperity, tends to compete with other goals, like environmental sustainability.
There are two ways to view the biosphere, one is as an ecosystem and the other as an object of exploitation. Long-term support of large human populations requires viewing the Earth as an ecosystem, yet much of human activity treats the environment like an object to exploit. This view is held by people desperate to survive in impoverished places. For example, the failure of China’s Great Leap Forward to produce adequate crops drove starving people to strip bark off of trees and boil it in a soup, denuding forests. It is also held by large financial corporations whose sole purpose is to make a profit, and raw exploitation without replenishment or concern for the future is a byproduct of economic systems solely driven for short-term profits. Economic systems that think long-term, on the other hand, require sustainability. Unfortunately, most contemporary large corporate enterprises, like impoverished peoples, think in terms of hand-to-mouth rather than economic and environmental sustainability.
One obvious example is the planting of large areas of land with a few crops, displacing many of the plants and animals that lived there previously. Next, add to that the reduction of “genetic” biodiversity with corporations selling patented seeds to be used by all the farmers, rather than allowing a wide variety of genetic varieties of a species. Then add to that the large-scale use of fertilizers that can create toxic runoff, killing more wildlife, and cause human cancers when it gets into drinking water. While large-scale agribusinesses currently produce a great amount of food at a lower cost, their maximum exploitation of the land can threaten the existence of many species and can lead to the eventual depletion or poisoning of the soil. Family farms, on the other hand were tilled with the idea they would serve generations of descendants, a larger variety of crops would be grown, and rotated, and fertilizers used sparingly. Hence, while traditional family farms were more environmentally sensitive than large-scale agribusinesses as they currently operate.
The challenges of global biodiversity are significant. Large corporations, governments, and people all need to learn how a sustainable balance with the earth can be maintained. Raw exploitation is faster and easier; it is also more damaging. Human beings can either be caretakers of the earth, or act as maggots feeding on a carcass. When a carcass has been eaten up, the maggots die. The same is true of the difference between leveling forests, or replanting a new tree for each one cut down. Or, for fish farming rather than pulling all fish out of a lake and moving to the next lake. Human beings have lived in harmony with nature in the past, and it is important that we learn how to do it with our large populations today.