You’ve probably all heard the saying, “If a tree falls in the woods and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” I like to tie that saying in with my thinking about endangered species and extinction – if a species that no one has ever seen before goes extinct, does it really matter? I mean, who’s to know? Unfortunately that scenario probably plays out all the time, as people cut down rainforests, dredge river beds and fill in wetlands. Particularly in remote areas of South America, Africa and Indonesia, what were once areas untouched by the hand of man are now falling to the pressures of development, timer harvesting, the bush meat trade and other impacts to the natural resources. In these places the biodiversity, or variety of living things, is enormously high. There could be hundreds, if not thousands or tens of thousands, of unknown species living in the tree canopy, the leaf litter or the streams. The majority of these unnamed creatures are insects, but also include plants, small amphibians, birds and even an occasional mammal.
So back to my earlier question: if these species become extinct, does it matter? With our busy, over-programmed lives it can be easy to think that no, in the grand scheme of things those species are not important. What is one variety of ant compared to the entire wealth of species on the planet? Yet that ant performs a role in its environment, and that role may no longer be filled. The web of life describes the interconnected nature of one species to another. Pull on one of the web’s strands and many individual species feel the tug. Remove one of those species and the overall shape of the web changes. Remove enough of those species and the web falls apart.
From the lowliest micro-organism to the mightiest redwood tree, each species has a role to play and a niche to fill. Conserving as many species and special places as possible is important to our well being. Conservation is about protecting the things that we love, but it is more than that. For I may not love spiders but I recognize (and love) that they play an important role: they eat some insects that I dislike even more. And just because I will never see 99.99 percent of the species on this planet doesn’t mean that they are not valuable and worth protecting. They exist (and love being alive), therefore they deserve our respect.
Conservation of these 3 to 30 million species (the exact number is unknown because there are so many unidentified species out there!) does not have to be at odds with human progress, either. So many times people pit conservation against economic development, saying you can’t have one with the other, but I disagree. So much of our economic development is tied to the cleanliness of our environment and the abundance of our natural resources. Look at tourism – people don’t visit Yellowstone National Park to see the strip malls; they go for the natural scenic vistas and wealth of animals. Look at recreation – people don’t choose to swim in polluted waters or fish in rivers where all the fish have lesions and tumors; they want clean water and healthy organisms.
Even some industries that may traditionally be at odds with the environment can be tweaked to support it: Agriculture can use organic practices, a variety of plants (rather than just one) and no-till to help protect the surrounding environment. New housing and commercial developments can use low impact development principles to reduce lot sizes, keep as many trees on-site, reduce construction impacts and provide healthy outdoor recreation. Quality of life doesn’t have to suffer for conservation.