Sustaining Tomorrow

Disruption of the ecological balance could upend everything

“Some evil spell had settled on the community: mysterious maladies swept the flocks of chickens; the cattle and sheep sickened and died. Everywhere was a shadow of death.”

So biologist Rachel Carson described a fictional American town in her acclaimed 1962 book Silent Spring, which opened with a “fable for tomorrow.” The maladies were caused by indiscriminate application of DDT and other chemical pesticides which were already exerting massive damage on wildlife, livestock, pets, and even humans. It seems unthinkable we would blanket the Earth with such poisons, but we have.

Nature-based solutions to climate, food and water security, and sustainable livelihood all depend on biodiversity—the foundation for a sustainable future. However, socially among humans, full development of production has wide consensus as a must to feed the surging population and maintain economic benefits. Indiscriminate usage of DDT and other pesticides (or biocides) is not the only foreshadow of death. Cold reality is that due to rapid development of industrialization, biodiversity is vanishing at an astonishing rate unseen in human history, all on our watch.

Conquest or Coexistence

The soil on this planet nurtures all kinds of organisms along the ecological food chain. In Carson’s view, all living things on Earth are closely related, all species are interdependent, and all creatures are dependent on Mother Nature. All animals and plants on Earth, upon which man depends, compose this magical and beautiful biosphere. Any disruption of the balance of the sphere could cause disaster to the entire ecosystem.

“Man conquering nature” used to be an expression of a heroic spirit to in some way tame the wilds. While promoting the development of science and technology alongside the advancement of human civilization, humans have often transformed nature according to subjective wishes to get more from it. Reckless interference, abuse, and destruction of nature has left us in an almost insurmountable ecological crisis.

The environmental Kuznets curve (EKC) shows that environmental protection rises as a priority alongside economic prosperity. It is conventional wisdom that the environment pays the inevitable price for development. Forest fires across Indonesia have been a problem for years, especially in 1991, 1994, and 1997. Some reports blamed on El Niño for fires, but others estimated that 80 percent of Indonesia’s forest fires in 1997 were caused by big-operation farmers seeking to exploit wilderness.

The EKC is not absolute, however. Lu Zhi, a professor of conservation biology at Peking University and executive director of the university’s Center for Nature and Society, noted that in China’s areas inhabited by ethnic minorities, many people endure difficult lives yet still maintain strong awareness for ecological protection and actively participate in it. In February 2019, an avalanche dropped in Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture of Qinghai Province. Many local herders spontaneously carried foliage into the mountains to save wildlife. Such behavior is not about monetary incentives or legal obligations, but a response to values. Such efforts are quite inspirational for environmental protection.

Environmental degradation is inseparable from human well-being. Kathy Willis, professor of global biodiversity at Oxford University, has a unique view of the “value” of man and nature. She thinks that people don’t like to put a label of “value” on biodiversity but are forced to. Without trees in the streets, incidence of asthma would increase dramatically. If the positive impact of nature is lost, people would need to rely on more costly but less efficient technological solutions to replace the benefits. Such technology seems like a tall order.

In September 2020, the Summit on Biodiversity will convene on the margins of the 75th session of the UN General Assembly. Xie Yan, associate research fellow at the Institute of Zoology under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, thinks that most countries globally are unaware of the significance of biodiversity on the long-term survival of their own people. Heads of state and government in attendance of the summit need to be fully aware that biodiversity conservation is, first and foremost, the duty of a state. Each nation must protect the ecological security of its own people.

Biodiversity & Public Health

In 2020, we experienced some deaths quite different from Carson’s “silent spring.” The outbreak of COVID-19 pressed the “pause” button on cities. Streets that were perpetually bustling with traffic and pedestrians went silent in the blink of an eye. Noisy factories went silent. Everybody was hidden behind a mask and stayed away from others. The coronavirus still spreads across the world, resulting in millions of infections and hundreds of thousands of deaths, not to mention an unprecedented impact on global economics, trade, diplomacy, and social psychology.

Although the source and route of transmission of the virus have not been scientifically confirmed, most studies so far trace the virus to nature. Scientists generally agree that it jumped from natural hosts of wild animals such as bats and pangolin to humans via intermediate hosts.

In recent years, new infectious diseases have constantly emerged around the world such as Hendra virus (HeV), Nipah virus (NV), H7N9 avian influenza, Ebola, SARS, MERS, and many more—all associated with animals. Frequent contact between humans, wildlife, and livestock always risks exposure to infectious diseases that could threaten the health of all. The growth of international trade, including trade of wildlife both legal and illegal, with increasingly convenient transnational transportation of people, has made it easier for infectious diseases to spread regionally and even globally.

Lu Zhi believes that these viruses have existed in nature and evolved in tandem with their hosts for a long time, striking a delicate balance. However, illegal trade and consumption of wildlife, or encroachment into wildlife habitats, can lead to a significantly greater exposure to these viruses among humans and endanger public health security. The trend of globalization, convenience of transportation, and faster movement of people have all increased the risk of infectious disease outbreaks.

The connection between biodiversity and public health security has never been as painfully close as today. Under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, China is making major contributions as a big country rich in biodiversity resources. Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, executive secretary of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, applauded China’s development philosophy of “ecological progress.” She praised China’s strong determination to prioritize biodiversity through rigorous protective measures such as setting red lines for ecological conservation.

To preserve biodiversity, China enacted the Law of the People’s Republic of China on the Protection of Wildlife back in 1989. A quarter of a century later, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress amended the law to fully ban illegal hunting, trading, transportation, and consumption of wild animals.

Human activity makes a huge impact on the ecosystem. Dr. Li Binbin, assistant professor of environmental sciences at the Environmental Research Center at Duke Kunshan University in east China’s Jiangsu Province, attributed great changes in the ecosystem to human activities such as new land usage, intensive agricultural production, and introduction of antimicrobial agents, which all exacerbate the risk and potential impact of infectious disease outbreaks. Change in land usage is the most important factor contributing to the increase in infectious diseases caused by wildlife. A study in the Amazon Basin found that incidence of malaria increased by 50 percent when forest cover decreased by 4 percent due to human activities such as logging because the hydrothermal conditions in the deforested areas became more conducive to breeding of intermediary host—mosquitoes. In the biosphere, human interference does not often directly change species diversity but increases the probability of transmission of pathogens by affecting species composition and community vulnerabilities.

“This is not simply an ecological environment problem,” commented Wang Huo, deputy secretary-general of the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation. “The dramatic loss of biodiversity is an unprecedented and enormous challenge for humanity. The most important step is to fully mobilize all the people from all walks of life to participate in the protection of biodiversity.”

At the end of her book, Carson wrote: “The people had done it themselves.” She claimed that all kinds of people had some role—rich and poor, men and women, even newborn infants. Today, 60 years later, Carson’s once controversial views are gaining support. Awareness of biodiversity conservation is rising, and people are contributing to it with concrete action. The little improvements are like bird songs in a silent spring—as sign of hope and expectations.

“We are the last generation with a chance to save biodiversity,” added Wang. “It’s not too late to make some changes.”

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