New Book Explores ‘How Human Health Depends on Biodiversity’
by Evaggelos Vallianatos
Sometime in the 1990s I heard the Harvard professor of medicine, Eric Chivian, make a presentation on Capitol Hill about the anthropogenic origins of global warming. He is an academic who speaks to the world. He co-founded International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, which, in 1985, won the Nobel Peace Prize. He is also the founder and director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School.
I recently rediscovered Chivian because of his work on biological diversity, which he edited with his colleague, Aaron Bernstein. The book, Sustaining Life: How Human Health Depends on Biodiversity, published in 2008 by Oxford University Press, is extremely important and timely. The Library Journal named it the “Best Biology Book of 2008.” It is now in its fourth printing and is used at scores of high schools, colleges and graduate schools all over the world. Spanish, Japanese, Chinese and Arabic editions are scheduled to appear in a year or two.
Sustaining Life deserves the attention it is getting. It documents how humans are wrecking life on Earth. Species are forced to extinction at a rate of 100 to 1,000 times greater than that of pre-human levels. Now the extinction rate is becoming 10,000 times greater.
Hungry Africans slaughter thousands of wild animals every year for bush meat. In Central Africa alone “more than one million tons of forest animals are killed for food each year.”
The violence against biological biodiversity in Africa is part of a global war against nature. This is a gigantic and, certainly, deleterious human effort to subdue the Earth. Americans have laws protecting endangered species but rarely enforce them. Pesticides alone poison 670 million birds and kill 67 million of then every year. Europeans and North Americans have been the champions of exterminating wild animals and plants. This war against nature now is coming home to roost: Humans themselves are becoming the canary of a likely catastrophe.
Humans are merely one of about ten millions species that sustain life on Earth, a small star the Greeks and Plato in particular thought as the oldest of the gods, Mother to countless generations of humans.
Modern humans, however, cut off their ties to Mother Earth, working under the delusion they have had nothing to do with the natural world made up of myriads of microorganisms, plants, and animals. Thus, the works of man, his industries, wars, science, religions, and politics, have been leaving a heavy, deleterious, and suicidal footprint on our beautiful Earth.
Chivian and Bernstein describe the human impact on Earth as a “heedless degradation of the planet.” In the last 50 years, they say, this onslaught against the Earth has “resulted in the loss of roughly one-fifth of the Earth’s topsoil, one-fifth of its land suitable for agriculture, almost 90 percent of its large commercial marine fisheries, and one-third of its forests.” Humans also “dumped millions of tons of chemicals onto soils and into fresh water, the oceans, and the air.”
The editors started thinking about the fate of biodiversity during the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. They wanted to show the devastating human impact on nature and, more important than that, they wanted to inform the world “what was known about how other species contribute to human health.”
The result of that 16-year effort is this essential text: Sustaining Life. With the support of the UN Secretariat of the Convention on Biological diversity, the UN Development Programme, the UN Environment Programme, the World Conservation Union and the collaboration of several American and foreign scientists, the book is a treasure trove of the latest scientific findings on how important biodiversity is to maintaining life on Earth — and, therefore, keeping us in good health. It resurrects Hippocrates’ advice to physicians: do no harm.
Ecosystems make life possible. The plants, microorganisms, and animals of each ecosystem, work together and with other ecosystems in giving us food, medicines and fuel. They also purify air and water, detoxify soils and lessen the violence of natural storms.
Disrupt an ecosystem by killing some or most of its species and you spread disease among humans. Tropical deforestation, for example, increases malaria. The less species left in a degraded ecosystem, the more disease for man.
We still use drugs from nature. The Madagascar Periwinkle cures Hodgkin’s lymphoma and childhood leukemia. Microbes give us penicillin and most of our antibiotics. Important painkillers come from the cone snails of tropical coral reefs now threatened by global warming.
Sustaining Life puts the advantages of biodiversity into sharp relief. Yes, global warming, deforestation, and industrial one-crop farming are destabilizing civilization. But no life, including human life, would be possible without biological diversity. Biodiversity is us: we cannot harm it without harming ourselves.
Read Sustaining Life. Its authors translate complex scientific issues into lucid prose. The book is lavishly illustrated, guiding the reader to additional sources. It offers suggestions on what we can do: grow one’s organic garden, lobbying politicians for Earth friendly policies, and work with nongovernmental organizations protecting life on Earth.
I would hope, however, that in the next edition, the editors expand their recommendations chapter to include more vigorous actions appropriate for the anthropogenic biological emergency of the planet.
Affluent people bear more of the blame for this planetary apocalypse, so, for example, they ought to fund Africa’s food security away from bush meat. At the same time they ought to end policies pushing species to extinction; control chemical pollution; ban carcinogens; and practice biological alternatives to factory fishing and factory farming. The sun’s energy is endless: harvest it and you replace fossil fuels and, perhaps, reverse the warming of the planet. If we have the courage to defend the Earth, biological diversity may heal the wounded planet — and us.
Make all work and science geocentric and the Earth sacred.
Evaggelos Vallianatos teaches at Pitzer College. He is the author of several books, including “Poison Spring” (forthcoming from Bloomsbury Press).