As I have mentioned numerous times, I read the National Geographic, cover to cover, every month. (Two of my secret wishes include Nat Geo. First, to somehow have an article published in an edition, and even more unlikely, to convince Donald Trump to regularly read this wonderful magazine).
I just started the September edition, but felt compelled to comment on a short article called The Cost of Harming Nature. Written by Enric Sala, it is an excerpt from his book The Nature of Nature: Why We Need the Wild. Sala is an explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society and is known for his work as an ecologist and oceanographer.
In this article, Sala talks about the importance of valuing all life, but takes us to the oceans, rather than on land where we see and hear so much more about biodiversity and the ongoing mass extinction of life among animal, insect, bird, and other forms of life.
Before going further, I would like to share part of a quote from Sala, that precedes the article.
"COVID-19 is yet another reminder that conservation is not just a luxury for rich countries or a romantic ideal. Our very survival depends on our being better members of the biosphere, our larger community".
Can you imagine how quickly and efficiently our species would be able to address climate change if our leaders believed that winning elections depended on how they demonstrated agreement with this premise, how more environmentally sound the decisions of the business leaders of the world would be if they believed their children and grandchildren's lives were incumbent on acting in conjunction with that belief, and how enhanced the lives of all people on the planet would be if in following the meaning of that quote, we were able to focus our global resources on guaranteeing our limited fresh water is clean and more readily available, our air free of pollutants, and our land (and the food it produces) was returned to a state without chemicals, hormones, and antibiotics?
So, the main point of the article concerned how the presence of humans in the various Line Islands, located in the Pacific Ocean, corresponded to a change in the animal biomass, both numbers and diversity. In his research, with all variables, such as oceanographic and climate conditions, flora and fauna, equal, Sala found that as the population of humans increased, the health of the coral reefs decreased. In short, "when people, even just a few hundred, start fishing, they trim the food web from the top. And as their number increases from none to just a few thousand, the coral reef shifts from one with lots of sharks and corals to one without sharks but with lots of small fish and seaweed".
This, in itself, was no big surprise. And, while disappointing, it doesn't mean that we can't reap the bounty of nature to feed ourselves if we do it responsibly, and with an eye towards sustainability.
What also was no surprise was that as the presence of humans increased, there was more bacteria in the waters, up to 10 times the amount thnt in waters without human interactions, and that the bacteria included a much higher concentration of pathogens. Especially worrisome to Sala and his team was the presence of Vibrio, a bacteria that causes diseases in corals, and humans. Diseases such as cholera, gastroenteritis, wound infections and septicemia.
I know, all bad news so far. Where is the happy ending?
In April and May of 2009, while conducting research in 5 islands in the Line Island chain south of the equator, Sala found the same clean, clear water, extremely high fish biomass, no humans. But they also found an abundance of giant clams, something they saw in their earlier expeditions, but did not take particular note of.
As it turns out, giant clams are expert water filters. In the process of taking microbes for food from the water they intake, the resulting outtake contains far less microbes, dangerous or otherwise. To test this hypothesis, members of the expedition led by viral ecologist Forest Rowher, placed water from the lagoon in an aquarium, water from the lagoon with empty clam shells in another, and water with live, giant clams in a third. And, you guessed it, the water with the giant clams was cleansed of most of its bacteria and viruses, while the other two aquariums became turbid and loaded with bacteria.
Additionally, Rowher added Vibrio to the water with the giant clams, and, while the Vibrio put in the control aquariums thrived, it was significantly reduced in the water with the clams.
Except that giant clams are on the decline all over the Pacific for their meat and shells. The very animal which helps maintain the health of the ocean, is slowly disappearing through improper harvesting methods by the alleged, smartest animal on the planet.
So often, we use the excuse that we need to develop (a fancy word for destroy nature) this forest or that farm, or the field just sitting there, empty. That the extinction of an inconsequential bird, or mammal, or insect, is not important in the big picture when we are talking about feeding or sheltering people. And, perhaps, that might be the case in certain circumstances when dire outcomes may be imminent. But it should not be the norm, it must be the exception, pursued only when there is truly no other alternative, and not just because it is more convenient, and certainly not to feed the greed of those who only gauge the natural world by how much money they can make from it.
That next tiny animal, the last of its species, could very well be the "virus filter" that prevents the next pandemic, except we won't know it because it will have never prevented it. If I were to tell you that an animal, or fish, or some other "insignificant" life form was a natural predator for COVID-19, but, alas, was not there for us when we needed it, would that encourage you to support biodiversity? Or alarm you to think about all the other insignificant life forms we have helped make extinct, and wonder how many dangers in nature they may have contained, but won't contain in the future?
Sala ends his article with an idea which I have also promoted. "Even if it's just for selfish reasons -- for our own survival -- now more than ever, we need the wild. A healthy natural world is our best antivirus".