Biodiversity: The co-evolutionary relationship between humans and nature

Posted on July 4, 2012 by



Biodiversity is not only key to the survival of the human species, but the entire planet.  It is known as one of the most important drivers of global environmental change.  Anyone with appreciation for diversity of wildlife where they live for example understands the importance of biodiversity to non-human communities, but it is also essential to many human ones.  As the Earth’s ecosystems are currently threatened by a wide range of environmental factors such as climate change, land fragmentation and global intensification of agriculture, changes that take place at a local and global scale could together have dynamic, unforeseen impacts on the planet as a whole.

Many mostly non-western societies are directly dependent upon biodiversity for their livelihoods.  People who depend on biodiversity usually live in rural areas or in forests sharing a close relationship with species they depend on for survival.  Biodiversity refers to many things, but especially species richness or abundance, reproduction of plant and animal species and both the timing and geographic dispersion of species throughout the world.

At the Tipping Points conference Prof Patricia Howard from the School of Anthropology & Conservation at the University of Kent, gave a truly excellent presentation on biodiversity tipping points within socio-ecological systems.  Her research is focused on the livelihoods of rural populations in particular how they adapt to changing environments, the role of keystone species such as the camel for the Sahrawi who live in the Western Sahara and how humans and nature co-evolve.

Tipping points have only recently been linked to biodiversity, which is expected to shift radically within relatively short periods of time (see Earth Tipping Points?).  Climate change is one driver of biodiversity loss, but there are many others that are primarily produced by humans.  Patricia gave several examples of regional biodiversity tipping points such as the die-back of the Amazon Rainforest, desertification and the loss of tropical coral reefs.  Many important changes have been occurring now that impact biodiversity such as ocean acidification (see Tipping point for coral reefs?).  The relevance of studying biodiversity for tipping points research is that it also seems related to the notion that small changes could indeed make a big difference as Malcolm Gladwell illustrates in his book The Tipping Point, but in this case with profound, unintended and devastating consequences.

It is of course no surprise that humans dominate the planet yet interestingly they are often left out of models that are used to understand changes in biodiversity, as changes induced by humans are often viewed as ‘unnatural’, but anthropogenic (human-driven) ecological changes are affecting life on Earth at such an incredible scale that they must be included if we are to truly grasp the extent at which people are transforming their environments (see Putting people in the map: anthropogenic biomes of the world).  But I think it’s important to note that change itself is not the problem here per say, rather it’s the types of changes that are taking place at a scale that humans seem to only have partial if any control over.  Patricia noted importantly that ‘humans organise socially to alter the environment to meet socially-defined needs’.  Altering the Earth’s environment is in a sense what we’re here to do in the first place, but it’s the how that is most important here, not why, because how people change the environment could benefit biodiversity instead of simply destroying it.

What I found especially interesting during this talk was how Patricia conveyed people’s means of resilience or adaptive capacities to environmental change, the ways people exchange knowledge, skills and innovation to survive.  And this is where biodiversity plays a fascinating role in human cultural evolution in that it provides the foundation for social organization and even cultural identity.  Maybe this seems elementary if closely scrutinized, but there is a habit of viewing species other than human (or even humans for that matter) as objects separate from the cultural practices and identities people depend upon for survival.

Yet cultures where biodiversity plays a central role to their livelihoods have been labeled as ‘backward’ or ‘primitive’ when it is this subject/object dualism that has plagued many human civilizations for thousands of years and despite scientific and technological advances many people today, especially those most cut-off from biodiversity, simply don’t get it.  At best it is seen as a romanticism and at worse something to be made obsolete – this is how much of the ‘developed’ world has viewed its relationship with biodiversity — as something best left forgotten.

In response to this grave mistake in human cultural evolution, Patricia recommends developing the capacity for planetary cultural resilience, meaning ‘biocultural diversity’, generating new alternatives to generating stable new states that can sustain themselves for many generations.  This includes building new human-nature relations and the means (knowledge and skills) for adapting to global environmental change at a local level and economic relations that move beyond the limitations of a global financial system that is far too myopic in its method(s) and actions to be able to cope with the changes humans and other species mush adapt to.

A video of Patricia’s talk, ‘Biodiversity tipping points and biodiversity-dependent socio-ecological systems, pathways for human adaptation?’, will be available on the Tipping Points blog in due course.

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