Defending the Living Planet
Published on May 24, 2020
The natural world is deeply interconnected.
From the tiniest beetle and the smallest duckweed to the colossal squid and the giant sequoia, the diversity of earth’s fauna and flora are astounding as well as breathtaking. Greek philosopher and scientist, Aristotle, stated centuries ago that nature does nothing uselessly. Every creature on earth has a specific role to play. And still there are countless unknown species waiting to be discovered. When a species goes extinct, a page in the book of earth goes missing. Several such pages have been lost, thanks to unchecked human activity. Human interference poses a grave threat to the entire biosphere.
It is the Anthropocene or the Epoch of Man, but man is not the owner, but a mere steward, inheriting earth temporarily and not exempt from the web of life, in fact, just another thread in this web. It has been pointed out when bees go extinct, so will the human race, within a few years. A sixth mass extinction (or annihilation!) by 2100 is predicted by the scientists.
In the three decades after the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl, wildlife is thriving. The absence of humans in Chernobyl’s exclusion zone has created an opportunity for abundant populations of grey wolves, moose, beaver, brown bear, lynx, owls, deer and other animals, as there is no threat of man hunting or ruining their habitat.
Jackals in the remote Pirotan Island off the coast of Gujarat, in India, with no freshwater have managed an extreme adaptation to survive in the intertidal regions. They meet their body’s metabolic requirement of water by licking the dew on the leaves every morning and feeding on crab meat. This is a clever use of the resources available.
Due to the COVID-19 lockdown and the absence of tourism, the endangered Olive Ridley turtles have returned in their thousands to dig nests and lay eggs in Rushikulya rookery in Odisha. Elsewhere, water bodies are clearer, animals are invading urban niches, and there is a drop in air pollution.
Ocean temperature rise is linked to devastating cyclones, hurricanes and storms. Increasing mining, farming and housing have led to destruction of wildlife. An ecosystem that has lost 10 percent of its biodiversity cannot function normally.
Currently, the world is grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic. Deforestation, intensive farming, biodiversity loss and climate change are the main reasons for the virus spillover into the human population. When environments are destroyed, large predatory animals are lost and small animals are left behind. These species compete for meagre natural resources and tend to enter into the human population in search of food and shelter. It is estimated that there are 1.7 million unidentified viruses capable of infecting humans, present in mammals and water birds.
To avoid future pandemics, there is a need to share natural resources fairly and end global inequality. The time has come to address global issues holistically and rethink human relationship with the environment.
We cannot prevent future catastrophes, but through improved knowledge and advanced warning systems, we can lay the foundation for a more sustainable and resilient system.
“Our solutions are in nature” is the theme for this year’s International Day for Biological Diversity, 22 May 2020. To preserve biodiversity, prevent land degradation, and solve climate change, solutions can be salvaged from traditional indigenous knowledge.
The natives of yore have shared numerous stories about the destructive power of natural disasters for thousands of years and how they survived and thrived. Global heating is not a sudden phenomenon, but has been slowly creeping up for decades. To fight climate change, humanity needs a new set of stories. Looking into the past and learning how locals responded to pandemics, earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes, cyclones and flooding can help equip people to be better prepared.
Deforestation upsets the hydrological pattern. It reduces water-holding capacity of land and leads to flash floods and soil erosion. Ultimately, it reduces rain and results in drought. Surviving wildlands need to be protected. The rivers, streams and lakes in both tropical and temperate regions are the most vulnerable.
A forest ecosystem along with trees, soil, leaf litter and vegetation helps to absorb and hold carbon, enhancing the water cycle, conserving soil, protecting the habitat and pollinators, providing food, medicine, fibre, along with providing shelter for people.
Even in spite of climate change and erratic weather, perennial trees, bushes and shrubs with their deep roots remain stable and productive with minimum care. Trees contribute to the cycle of rain and enrich the soil through leaves which drop and decompose. Some are nitrogen fixers while some are pollinators vital for biodiversity. Long-rooted trees tap the valuable minerals found in the depths of earth and bring it to the surface for other plants.
Forests should be restored by releasing land from non-forest use and letting nature take over. Native species should be cultivated and invasive species must be removed to accelerate this process. More nature reserves should be created worldwide. Forest species should be raised in forest land in order to restore lost vegetation.
The ecological phenomenon of trophic cascade demonstrates the importance of the presence or absence of top predators to nutrient cycling and preservation of the ecosystem. Environmentalist and author, George Monbiot, in his book “Feral” talks about rewilding the land, sea and human life. For instance, when wolves were reintroduced to the Yellowstone National Park after a 70-year absence, they kept a check on the elk population which was responsible for reducing the vegetation of the area. The trees then began to grow, attracting scores of new animals to the area, which helped in stabilising the banks of rivers, making it less susceptible to erosion. So that’s how wolves changed the course of rivers!
It takes years to establish a forest species in a nursery. Instead planting a branch of a wind-felled tree saves time and energy, and is an effective method of restoring vegetation of trees easily uprooted. Seed balls, made by rolling together wildflower seeds, clay, compost and water, thrown on a neglected land, enable dispersal of seeds and growth of a forested patch. Urban green activists often engage in seed bombing for guerrilla gardening!
Permaculture, a system of farming since aeons, is a sustainable model for growing food in a farm or scaled down for a home garden. It is an agricultural system that complies with the challenges of climate change. Children should be taught about their local wild fauna and flora, to arouse the curiosity among the younger generation.
Overpopulation and overconsumption due to the great acceleration brought on by neoliberal capitalism has resulted in increased greenhouse emissions and climate breakdown. Although economic progress is vital for every nation, careless use of natural resources and unbound emissions must end with immediate effect. If left unchecked, it will create deep fissures and roll back the developmental gains made over the last decades.
Humanity’s effort should commensurate with the magnitude of the problem.
Infinite growth on a finite planet is unviable.
Make the move from being resource hungry to a zero-waste society and balance a healthy environment with economic development.
To save biodiversity, it is necessary to strictly adhere to the precautionary principle in the treatment of earth’s natural ecosystems.
It’s time to choose policies and actions to prevent man-made apocalypse, preserve biodiversity and protect nature.