What wondrous variety!
Editor's note: This article first appeared in The Roanoke Star.
In the early 1990s, while on expedition in equatorial Africa, I helped to discover two new species: a tiny ant and an equally diminutive spider. The former was an arboreal weaver ant, and the latter was a diabolically clever ant-mimicking spider that actually lived stealthily inside the ant colony, snatching its prey on occasion without alarming the insects. These species appear to have co-evolved at the edge of the tropical rainforest, an intriguing “dance” between an ambush predator and its equally fierce prey. What wondrous variety thrives in the natural world!
The ant and spider are just two types of more than 30 million species scattered across the planet in just about every nook and cranny imaginable. Woven together, the planet’s biodiversity provides a tapestry of life upon which we humans depend for our food, clean water and air, shelter, clothing, medicine, and even companionship.
And, almost daily, we hear about other newly discovered species. Just this morning, for instance, I read about the finding of a new jellyfish swimming in the Mariana Trench, the world’s deepest ocean trough located east of The Philippines, and a new type of frog climbing and singing in the Brazilian rainforest. Intrepid researchers announced these astonishing discoveries in late April 2016. With every new species discovered, we scientists also wonder: Could it represent the next cure for cancer or the next technological marvel to improve society?
I find it heartening that we still live in a world that can surprise us by the breadth and scope of its biological richness!
Yet I’m also deeply disturbed by the cavalier attitude of some people toward living things, a grotesque anthropomorphism that too often assumes the rights and privileges of a despot without also the incumbent responsibilities of stewardship. It’s a maniacal disconnect between need and desire within our hedonistic humanity.
Such a haughty attitude seems innate to every culture since the beginning of time – found among Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and every other type of spirituality in equal measure – despite the ubiquitous prescription of the gods to take care of Earth and its resources.
Biodepletion is an insidious environmental issue that haunts human society on multiple scales – from the global loss of species, ecosystems, and cultures (including languages and ethnobotanical knowledge) to the regional loss of genetic diversity and wildlife habitat. We’re shredding Earth’s rhythms, cycles, and interconnections, thereby increasing the entropy of civilization that will ultimately impoverish the human spirit and the ability of Earth to heal from our wounds.
The planet is now estimated to be losing thousands or tens of thousands of species yearly, and the 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment found nearly two-thirds of the services provided by nature to humankind in decline worldwide.
In a visceral sense, the exercise of human dominion over the living world is an erroneous, myopic, and altogether self-interested misinterpretation of an ancient calling of stewardship. If this were not the case, then the Judeo-Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindu worlds would have provided a convincing ethos of caretaking to their congregants long ago.
Nonetheless, we have singular examples living and dead – Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and St. Francis of Assisi among them – to remind us of our obligations as a caretaker species for the planet. Any lasting “fix” of the monumental issue of biodepletion will require sound scientific knowledge (especially ecology and evolution) and an engaging spirituality that transcends our current religious modalities.
Other approaches (e.g., economic applications sensu Robert Costanza’s “The Value of the World’s Ecosystem Services and Natural Capital, Nature, 1997) have failed to impress or have been devalued. Economic arguments, legal actions, and political claims are mere band-aids to stop the hemorrhaging of the planet’s life forces.
Instead, we need to embrace behavioral changes with strong positive links to sound science and an astute spirituality. We need to think globally, but act locally with gratitude and awe for Earth as home to near-countless and evolving species, diverse ecosystems, and complex biogeochemical processes, all interconnected and linked to our own well-being.
Let’s stop the bleeding of life from the planet. Let’s demand that scientists and spiritual leaders help to educate the public, engage our imaginations and spirits, emphasize the positives, and draw the line when necessary to protect the “cogs and wheels” of the planet, whether they be ants, spiders, jellyfish, frogs, or the children born generations hence.
Given the universal calling of stewardship, no matter the brand of spirituality, I don’t think we should take that vocation lightly. Recall Carl Jung’s warning: “Vocatus atque non vocatus, Deus aderit,” or “Bidden or unbidden, God is present.” Likewise, in Proverbs, “Timor dei initium sapiente,” or “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”