THE IMPORTANCE OF NATURAL BIODIVERSITY FOR OUR HEALTH & WELL-BEING
By Dr. Michael W. Fox*
“In wildness is the preservation of the world.”—Henry David Thoreau
“The day is not far distant when humanity will realize that biologically it is faced with a choice between suicide and adoration.”— Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
Saving and restoring biodiversity—indigenous plant and animal species and microorganisms—is essential for the health of aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems (which are models of how our industrial economy should function sustainably). This will help secure life-giving and health-sustaining “ecological services” including air and water purification, flood and drought control, nutrient cycling, pollination of crops and wild plants plus control of invasive pests and diseases.
Cultural as well as biological diversity of indigenous species and peoples, along with indigenous knowledge, traditional food-production and plant-based medicinal practices, crop and domestic animal varieties, call for greater protection under the banner of One World, One Health, One Economy. As responsible citizens we must make the Climate and Extinction Crises the top priority for responsible governments and industries to address and call for the establishment of a United Environmental Nations to help save and restore critically compromised human communities and wildlife habitat, aquatic and terrestrial.
The natural diversity of animals, including insects, plants and soil and water microorganisms that are native to a particular place (ecosystem) help maintain environmental health and sustainability as well as the food web. Such communities also help prevent the spread of invasive and potentially harmful species.
These controls break down and ecological dysbiosis sets in as a result of various human activities, especially industrial farming, aquaculture and agroforestry with virtual monocultures that drastically reduce biodiversity. Invasive weeds, pests and diseases take hold. Rather than change practices and adopt organic, more ecologically sound systems of production, the treadmill of reliance on herbicides, fungicides, insecticides, antibiotics, anti-parasitics and other drugs has become the accepted, profit-driven, norm. The rising incidence of cancer in children and dogs is no coincidence.
Public sanitation, personal hygiene, humane animal husbandry and environmental stewardship all help avoid the need for the “preventive” use of such chemical agents and their harmful consequences. Like antibiotics and fungicides, insecticides kill many, non-target, harmless species that help control the proliferation of other potentially harmful species through competitive exclusion. The public is also part of this collateral damage along with honey bees and other pollinators.
The loss of biodiversity and its trophic, regulatory effects coupled with drug and chemical misuse and herbicide-resistant, insecticide-producing corn and other GMO crops all help create “superbugs” — resistant strains of bacteria, fungi and other pests and diseases. Some are now resident in many hospitals; herbicide-resistant “superweeds”, blights and pests constantly threaten and ruin crops; drug- resistant populations of mosquitoes and internal parasites flourish around the world. Declining, mosquito-consuming frog and bat populations mean a rise in the incidence of malaria and other mosquito-borne diseases. The rising incidence of Lyme and other tick- borne diseases in the Americas is not simply attributable to climate change but many factors especially wildlife mismanagement encouraging high deer populations ( for the hunting industry) and extermination of wolves and cougars ( for the livestock industry): And a paucity of foxes and other eaters of small rodents that are disease-reservoirs, and of insectivorous birds and reptiles that consume disease-vectoring ticks.
Additional health and environmental problems are created by the importation of plant and animal produce and animal feed from abroad, which calls for heightened biosecurity, along with legislation to prohibit the ownership, propagation and deliberate or accidental release of “exotic” animals and plant varieties. In a mere three years, for example, the Fire salamander has declined by 99.9% in Holland due to the chytrid fungus disease originating in Asia from imported amphibians.
Also, domestic animals that become feral, from cats and camels to cattle and pigs, are a major threat to many wild species and biodiversity on many continents. Animal health and well-being must be integrated with human and environmental well-being.
Optimal biodiversity is the keystone of One Health—animal, plant, environmental and human— which Albert Schweitzer MD, was one of the first to recognize in his call for reverence for all life, an ethic that contradicts the ethos of consumptive and destructive societies. Having respect for all beings and things is one of the seven traditional core values of the Lakota Sioux. The contribution of biodiversity to One Health includes clean air, pure water (now via “bioremediation”), productive soils and ecosystem resilience: And, therefore, to greater climatic, economic and social stability and food security— provided our needs and numbers are more effectively self-restrained rather than by the adverse, anthropogenic consequences of intensifying planetary dysbiosis and wars over land and natural resources. Spiritually, the One Health concept is the acknowledgement of our sacred connections expressed as respect for all life and care for the well-being of all living things, not just human beings. It is the native American Indian’s visionary and ethical equivalent of the Medicine Wheel which also incorporates right relationships and right action.
Anthropocentrism and objectifying humans and other sentient beings are potentially fatal flaws socially and ecologically. An aesthetic appreciation for Nature, wild lands and all creatures great and small comes from our innate sensibilities of beauty, awe and wonder. This is the empathic template for bioethics and ethical sensibility. Such sensibility is lost when beauty in the eye of the beholder is objectified, forests becoming yet another resource, wild animals as trophies, women as sex objects.
For detailed documentation of the degradation of planetary ecosystems and loss of biodiversity, see the 2019 United Nations’ IPBES Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. (https://www.ipbes.net/assessment-reports/eca ).The Report finds that around 1 million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, many within decades, more than ever before in human history.
The average abundance of native species in most major land-based habitats has fallen by at least 20%, mostly since 1900. More than 40% of amphibian species, almost 33% of reef-forming corals and more than a third of all marine mammals are threatened. The picture is less clear for insect species, but available evidence supports a tentative estimate of 10% being threatened. At least 680 vertebrate species had been driven to extinction since the 16th century and more than 9% of all domesticated breeds of mammals used for food and agriculture had become extinct by 2016, with at least 1,000 more breeds still threatened.
ANIMALS, NATURE AND THE ETHICS OF RESPECT AND CARE
It is evident from the above United Nation’s report that we have yet to learn to share this planet with other intelligent life forms and consciousnesses. This would be for our own good which is bound to that of other beings who comprise and sustain the life community even if we do not respect and care for the least of them. Without the ethics of respect and care we are less than human and have become the most dangerous species on Earth. Inhumanity has no bounds ecologically, spiritually or ethically.
I did not foresee in my 1980 book One Earth One Mind how rapidly dystopias and planetary dysbiosis, signaled by climate change and a plethora of new pests and diseases, would come from our collective lack of respect and care. Now almost four decades later we are well into the “Anthropocene” age and awakening to the tragedy of reality and the challenge to either evolve or perish.
The ethics of respect and care awaken compassion and empathy, broadening into bioethics and now giving rise to the One Health movement. This is being embraced by more and more physicians, veterinarians and others in the healing professions along with organic farmers, foresters and other sustainable users of natural resources. The British Veterinary Association is promoting the benefits of sustainable consumption and the concept of “less and better” farmed animal produce for animal welfare, One Health and sustainability reasons. “Eating “less and better” sees some citizens reduce consumption of animal derived products, whilst maintaining proportional spend on high animal health and welfare products.”*
Governments under corporate control and corrupted by vested interests cannot be relied upon but all must be held responsible for resisting any and all civil society initiatives driven by reason, sound science, the ethics of respect and care and justice for all beings.
FEELING FOR OTHER LIVING BEINGS
Ecological biodiversity and cultural diversity have close parallels as models of biological and social democracy. The former is more resilient than monoculture farming systems that are more disease-prone and less sustainable. The same can be said for ideological monocultures of totalitarian, autocratic and theocratic regimes. Dystopia, dysbiosis and dysphoria are coins of the same anthropogenic currency.
Cultural diversity includes morally diverse perspectives which calls for moral pluralism and mutual tolerance, respect and consideration of different moral perspectives. With all due respect to moral -absolutist pro-lifers who are striving to limit the scope of Planned Parenthood in the U.S. and outlaw women’s rights concerning pregnancy terminations, we have a deeper issue to examine. Regardless of respecting the life of an unborn, respect for life is still human-centered (and in this instance biased) and, therefore, fundamentally flawed. Where is the respect for creatures wild and domesticated whom we continue to exploit and even justify killing for recreation, holding in captivity for our entertainment and slaughtering by the billions for our consumption? What of the forests that are bulldozed to create more land to feed livestock and for real estate development and golf courses? It seems, with Climate Change, the Hopi prophecy that “When the trees are gone, the sky will fall” is coming to pass. Reverential respect for all life is enlightened self-interest. Such respect should include those mothers who have the right not to bring more life into the world for ethical reasons even, as with euthanasia, the moral principle of not taking a life is violated. Simplistic moral principles of “good” and “evil” have been morally inverted to justify violence where evil becomes good as in acts of terrorism and in many civil and religious wars. Such morality ought not to undermine the ethical templates of civil society and humane stewardship.
Most ethicists have not done much better than moral fundamentalists over the centuries by limiting the scope of addressing our inhumanity by precluding other species from equal consideration and legal standing. The greater our feeling (empathy) for other living beings, human and non-human, plant and animal, the greater is our understanding and appreciation as well as openness to moral pluralism and ethical resposnibility. Also, the possibility of discovery and revelation, as exemplified by 1983 Nobel prize winning plant scientist Dr. Barbara McClintock, who famously shared that “Every time I walk on grass, I feel sorry because I know the grass is screaming at me.” In sum, we need, as a culture, to feel more beyond ourselves and our personal beliefs and convictions for the good of all life on our fragile and over-populated planet.
The late Aldo Leopold, a former government wolf exterminator who became America’s leading conservationist and natural philosopher, wrote “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.” But now a more ecologically-aware public, especially the youth, are suffering those wounds and without some direct action or other solution-seeking outlet feel despair and helplessness. Climate grief and other terms are being applied to people of all ages and from different cultures who are suffering emotionally from experiencing and knowing about the harmful consequences of climate change, many mourning the demise of other species more immediately harmed than most people, those in coastal, island and poorer communities being especially vulnerable. ( See https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2017/03/mental-health-climate.pdf)
FROM BIODIVERSITY TO BIOPOLITICS
Russian Count Peter Kropotkin, an early biologist/naturalist, saw mutual aid (now termed symbiosis) as the key that holds ecosystems together after his studies of life in the Russian Steppes. He saw no identifiable directing leader and hierarchy so he called it an anarchy. Fellow Englishman, Charles Darwin, around this same time in the history of biological discovery and its politicization, in line with the class system of British imperialism, saw competition and survival of the fittest. The lion is still a national symbol of such imperial power. Yet I was told by biologist Prof. James R. Malcolm that he learned from the Darwin family grapevine that Charles would write with his ink pen on one hand every day, “Not superior.“
I would say that both these interpretations of natural systems are correct but incomplete in and of themselves. They must be integrated, and then, from a more holistic perspective, we see a holarchy of biodiversity with co-evolving, cooperating and competing, creating and consuming, healing and harming life forms, macro and micro, plant and animal. For some indigenous peoples this holarchy is holy, the Medicine Wheel and Sacred Hoop of North American Indians. All of life is sacred and to be respected no matter how potentially harmful or repulsive.
Mutual aid occurs at various trophic levels of symbiosis, as between soil bacteria and plants, gut bacteria and animals, insects and plants. There are trans-kingdom interactions between species, their genomes and bacteria and viruses. Individual species are in reality composite organisms, mutually symbiotic bacterial microbiomes, including the virome, providing multiple benefits including immunity to potential pathogens. An atmospheric microbiome that circles the planet at some 20,000 feet has been recently recognized and accounts for the precipitation of viruses and bacteria on the ground, (now along with microplastics).
Mutual aid is also evident in: Care-giving and care-soliciting behavior seen in many species and can be interpreted as empathy-driven altruism: Between species as in alerting to and mobbing predators and in removing ectoparasites: And, more broadly, through “ecological services” from recycling to providing food for others or regulating their numbers to optimize biodiversity and ecosystem health.
It has been well documented that wild animals will on occasion come to humans for help when they are in distress. Here we see Kropotkin’s principle evident at that level of cognitive and social consciousness. The care-giving human responses affirm the power of empathy and compassionate action.
The status of wolves, a species I came to know well as an ethologist as per my book The Soul of the Wolf , and other wildlife in North America is indeed perilous and it began soon after the incursion of European settlers two centuries ago who started exterminating indigenous peoples and species, animal and plant. The University of Washington Press reprinted Murray Morgan’s 1950 book The Last Wilderness in which he wrote: “ It was strangely like war. They attacked the forest as if it were an enemy to be pushed back from the beachheads, to be driven into the hills, broken into patches, wiped out.” With the Climate Crisis we face today the Hopi prophecy that when the trees are gone the sky will fall” seems to be coming to pass.
Morgan’s statement affirms my early witnessing while growing up in the industrial north of England surrounded by William Blake’s “Satanic mills” of this war-like, adversarial state of mind. This included much of what of the natural world I cherished with awe and wonder and which I saw being destroyed “as if it were an enemy.”
Former editorial writer for the Star Tribune, James P. Lenfestey, wrote in this newspaper on August 27th, 2019 concerning the death of multibillionaire David L. Koch an article entitled “A shameful legacy of anti-science influence”, noting “There will be a special place in the annals of the hell of a hotter Earth for him and his brother Charles.” Both have provided funds to support various vested interests to discredit my and other’s research in animal welfare science and advocacy of humane treatment, animal rights and environmental protection.
Today many rural communities will support any initiatives that exploit natural resources, especially fracking and mining companies if it provides jobs for them make money for them, regardless of the long-term hidden costs. I sympathize with them, the out of work farmers and rural communities taken over by factory farms and the village girls, as I have seen at close hand, get by to care for their ailing elders, many who are dying of cancer because of constant exposure to agrichemicals,, by working as pole and lap dancers in what few bars that are still open. And in puppy mills and slaughter plants where also many immigrants labor night and day.
The recovery of quality of life for all is inseparable from environmental quality and viable economies that are sustainable for generations to come. Biocultural diversity is the hallmark of true democracy, the political holarchy of justice for all and respect for all life.
Opinions should not be based on unquestioned beliefs but on factual evidence. When opinions contradict facts and evidence there is denial and ideological rigidity. This is often based on beliefs that support vested interests as with those industries that continue to deny the reality of the current climate crisis and the environmental and public health costs of pesticides and industrial pollutants. When science-based opinion and consensus confronts such opposition there is polarization, issues become politicized and evidence dismissed by anti-science defenders of the status quo. The response of civil society is a call for the spiritual anarchism of personal responsibility when governments are aligned with the opposition rather than with the democratic principles of environmental and social justice and respect for all life through applying the Golden Rule in all our relationships.
The moral inversion of the Golden Rule and its conversion into the rule of gold is normative to “developers” and others who destructively exploit Nature—what is left of the natural environment—and in the process commit crimes against humanity and other planetary species and their sustainable communities. This global cult of mammon has its contemporary rebirth under the guise of Ayn Rand’s rational selfishness, materialism and objectivism. She stated “My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.”
The Climate Crisis and associated Extinction Crisis, as witness the accelerating loss of biological and cultural diversity, of indigenous varieties of plants, animals and native peoples, is accepted as unavoidable and progressive “productive achievement” by the dominant culture. Socially and economically this rising monoculture is non-sustainable with the same vulnerabilities as we see in ecological monocultures, dystopia and dysbiosis going hand in hand. An integral component of CPR—conservation, restoration and preservation—, includes the establishment of protected wildlife corridors between fragmented ecosystems which show an increase in biodiversity the more they are inter-connected.
Every nation must unite for the good of all life on Earth to avert the catastrophic consequences of intensified climate change which is the result of accelerating the metabolism of the planet through the burning of fossil fuels. More carbon is being put into the atmosphere that a less polluting and sustainable industrial economy would limit, capture and recycle. The challenges are enormous but cannot be averted by vested interests and for governments to ignore this is a crime against future generations, human and non-human. Otherwise the survival, health and quality of life of future generations of many species including the human will be severely compromised. As dystopian conditions worsen and dysbiosis intensifies, medical and technological interventions, driven primarily by short-term profitability, take precedence over prevention. Genetic technologies and artificial intelligence will, at best, merely delay the extinction of this kind of civilization based on destructive exploitation. The global imperialism of militaristic industrial technocracies with their extractive, toxic and non-sustainable products (“GNP”) and economies is nihilistic.
Much needed population control should be enlightened and voluntary but is currently executed largely by natural forces such as plagues, pestilence and famine coupled with warfare against each other and other species, a condition far removed from symbiosis. Environmentally dystrophic conditions, notably from harmful human activities such as deforestation, burning precious fossil fuels and the misuses of pesticides and antibiotics have dysbiotic consequences at several trophic levels from the microorganisms in the soil and oceans to those I our own bodies and of other creatures.
Genetic, epigenetic, physiological, psychological, cognitive and behavioral capacities to adapt to change may be inadequate for many species. The challenge to evolve or perish applies also to our own species. But becoming something less than human—no longer compassionate and caring—like a consumptive parasite or objectifying technocrat, would signal devolution. Our survival and security lies in us healing and sustaining all our symbiotic relationships, what native American Indians traditionally regarded as our sacred connections. In this “Anthropocene” age of human evolution and of a “hominized” planet the late Father Thomas Berry saw the Ecozoic era as the dawning of ecological consciousness, the emerging period in which humans would recover their creative orientation to the natural world. I see this epiphany happening now as the youth around the world have been demonstrating to call for concerted action to address the Climate and Extinction Crises.
“What’s good for the animals is good for us and the environment” is a truism which must be tempered by the reality of over-population of certain species, including the human and domesticated animals and the adverse impact on biodiversity which is the keystone of sustainable and healthy ecosystems upon which our own health depends. Good governance and “greener” politics are long overdue as the climate crisis we now face clearly underscores! For more documentation see my recent book Animals & Nature First.
RELIGION, ANIMALS & THE ENVIRONMENTAL CRISIS
For most of human history we humans were gatherer-hunters with an intimate knowledge of the natural world. This knowledge was the basis of our animistic religious sensibility that felt and respected the life force in all things, as in ourselves, which gave us a sense of kinship with all life.
Lakota Sioux Luther Standing Bear, in his 1933 book Land of the Spotted Eagle, wrote “The animal has rights-the right of man’s protection—-The concept of life and its relations was humanizing and gave the Lakota an abiding love. It filled his being with the joy and mystery of living; it gave him reverence for all life; it made a place for all things in the scheme of existence with equal respect for all.”
Christian missionary doctor Albert Schweitzer later echoed this spiritual realization in his philosophy of reverence for life especially from the perspectives of world peace and disease prevention. The Rev James R. Morton opined that “Ecology is the science of the Body of Christ through which we of the earth community learn our sacred connections.” As I spell out in my book The Boundless Circle: Caring for Creatures and Creation published by the Theosophical Society, I embrace panenetheism. This is not pantheism but rather holds that God or the Great Spirit is in all and all is in God or the Great Spirit—or whatever we chose to call the divine, universal and universalizing numinous presence deeply felt in moments of communion with another being or in Nature. Martin Buber called this the “I-Thou” relationship as distinct from” I-it”. In relation to this concept, Thomas Berry asserted that the universe is not a collection of objects but a communion of subjects. Philosophers such as Joseph Campbell alluded to the mysteruim tremendum et fascinans, the awakening of our sense of awe and wonder. This spiritual sensibility is the basis of religious rituals, practices, faith and beliefs. But I reject all religions that are anthropocentric and fail to extend the Golden Rule to how we should relate to and treat other sentient beings. Some may see Nature’s holarchy as God or divine manifestation through creation expressed in all life on Earth as many animists and panentheists contend. In political terms this means that we should live in awe and reverence of all life and constrain our numbers and appetites and actions to minimize harm to the Whole, so much of which we continue to desecrate and annihilate.
Embedded in human DNA is our ancestral, evolutionary history and many genes we share with other species, affirming our biological kinship. To believe that only humans are created in God’s image to rule the Earth is a misconception with tragic and self-limiting consequences if that God is not one of absolute compassion, pan-empathic with loving concern and care for all creatures great and small: and act accordingly.
Contemporary religions have taken us away from such affinities with other living beings and the natural world, long condemning such views as primitive paganism, and heretical to the divine order of man under God and man over all else. .It is surely time to make amends to all indigenous peoples and species and their ecosystems and communities..
* (BVA Position on UK sustainable animal agriculture - British Veterinary …https://www.bva.co.uk/...policies/Policies/Farm_animals/BVA-Position-on-UK-Sustain.)..
**For more details see Healing Animals & the Vision of One Health and Animals & Nature First, Create Space Books, Amazon.com