Revolution #199, April 18, 2010

Biodiversity, Wilderness and Nature

Why does it matter that species are destroyed on the scale mentioned in this issue of Revolution? Why does preserving biodiversity and wilderness matter?

First, species that exist are the product of millions of years of evolution. There is a certain amazing beauty to each one—to how it lives and relates to other species, and to the ways in which each evolved. But once destroyed, species are gone forever. It isn’t the case that humans, even if power is seized out of the hands of the capitalists, would be able to recreate biodiversity that is already gone. Certainly, species do go out of existence in the course of the evolution of life. But the destruction of species being caused by capitalism’s anarchic plunder is far greater than normal rates. It’s difficult to exactly measure these rates, but best scientific estimates are that extinction rates today are from 100 to 1,000 times the normal “background” rate. And this is a crime that must be stopped.

Second, nature and wilderness have great importance in relation to real human needs—to experience and explore the relatively unknown, to experience adventure and solitude. Nature and wilderness open us up to a certain kind of beauty, and a certain kind of awe and wonder. There is great joy in experiencing nature and the wild as it is, unchanged by human development. To lose this is to diminish what it can mean to be human.

Third, humanity is part of nature—and we rely on nature for our very life.

Humans are the product of natural evolution. We are part of and linked to all other living things in a real sense. All species originate as evolutionary modifications of pre-existing ancestor species, so all living species are related to each other, through a succession of shared ancestors. And our own human species is related, by different degrees of kinship, to all other species on the planet—whether the blades of grass and fruit trees, the polar bear, the smallest insect, or your family’s cat.

The natural world is made up of ecosystems—webs of life interacting with each other and their physical environment as a unit. Destruction of species, particularly key species, or groups of species, affect other species and can even cause unraveling of an entire ecosystem’s life. We don’t always know what threads when pulled might cause that unraveling.

One good example of this interconnectedness in ecosystems that biologists have discovered is the part played by predator species—such as the wolf in the Yellowstone National Park region. Wolves in this area were wiped out but now have been re-introduced. Studies have shown that wolves in effect regulate the entire ecosystem. The reintroduction of the wolf is keeping down the deer and elk populations that were overgrazing certain trees. Elk are now also staying away from grazing trees along streams because they are vulnerable to wolves in these areas. The elk not grazing as much by streams has caused the western aspen tree, which was almost eliminated, to come back. The aspen’s regrowth is providing more shade, making healthier river systems and better conditions for fish to thrive. Other species in turn eat fish to live. The importance of predator species at the top of the food chain in keeping a healthy and relatively balanced ecosystem has been found in many other ecosystems—including in the oceans where big negative changes have resulted from the elimination of predators by overfishing and hunting. Killing off top predators can in effect throw an entire ecosystem out of whack and make it vulnerable to degradation and even collapse.

One important area of scientific study and conservation work by biologists and others today is efforts to “rewild” the world. This involves efforts to overcome the destruction and fragmentation of natural wild habitat through development and other means, by linking up and preserving cores of natural wilderness and corridors for wildlife to move through so they can survive and flourish. These are very important efforts to protect our natural world.

We humans on this planet must realize that we depend on and rely on nature for our survival. The physical environment and its interaction with living organisms is the basis for human life—generating plants and animals for food, rain and thus fresh water to drink, materials for shelter, medicines for many diseases and illnesses, trees and plants that take carbon dioxide from the air and produce oxygen for us to breathe, etc. Without vibrant, functioning natural ecosystems—humanity will not be long for this world. Make no mistake, destruction and collapse of whole ecosystems can transform our planet to one that could become unlivable for humans, even with all our potential to adapt.

And this is what’s at stake in the environmental emergency facing us today.

The environmental emergency is driven by capitalism’s logic that nature is just an instrument that fuels growth—a logic that commodifies nature (turns nature into an object to buy and sell). This outlook is horrifically destructive and also leaves humanity impoverished in a moral sense. In contrast, a communist approach to nature sees humanity as becoming the guardians of the natural world and preserving the wild. It’s based on a scientific approach to understanding all of reality. It fosters an appreciation for the natural world, a joy in the wonder of it, a love for the beauty of it, a marveling at the complexity of it, and an eagerness to learn from all it can teach us.

But this approach is not simply better in a moral sense. This is the approach humanity needs to transform our relationship to nature—to be able to survive and live together with nature on this planet as part of a future communist world.


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