15.2.1 Why Should We Conserve Biodiversity?

There are many reasons, some obvious and others not so obvious, but all equally important. They can be grouped into three categories: narrowly utilitarian, broadly utilitarian, and ethical.

The narrowly utilitarian arguments for conserving biodiversity are obvious; humans derive countless direct economic benefits from naturefood (cereals, pulses, fruits), firewood, fibre, construction material, industrial products (tannins, lubricants, dyes, resins, perfumes ) and products of medicinal importance.

More than 25 per cent of the drugs currently sold in the market worldwide are derived from plants and 25,000 species of plants contribute to the traditional medicines used by native peoples around the world. Nobody knows how many more medicinally useful plants there are in tropical rain forests waiting to be explored.

With increasing resources put into ‘bioprospecting’ (exploring molecular, genetic and species-level diversity for products of economic importance), nations endowed with rich biodiversity can expect to reap enormous benefits.

The broadly utilitarian argument says that biodiversity plays a major role in many ecosystem services that nature provides. The fast- dwindling Amazon forest is estimated to produce, through photosynthesis, 20 per cent of the total oxygen in the earth’s atmosphere. Can we put an economic value on this service by nature? You can get some idea by finding out how much your neighborhood hospital spends on a cylinder of oxygen.

Pollination (without which plants cannot give us fruits or seeds) is another service, ecosystems provide through pollinators layer – bees, bumblebees, birds and bats. What will be the costs of accomplishing pollination without help from natural pollinators?

There are other intangible benefits – that we derive from nature–the aesthetic pleasures of walking through thick woods, watching spring flowers in full bloom or waking up to a bulbul’s song in the morning. Can we put a price tag on such things?

The ethical argument for conserving biodiversity relates to what we owe to millions of plant, animal and microbe species with whom we share this planet. Philosophically or spiritually, we need to realise that every species has an intrinsic value, even if it may not be of current or any economic value to us. We have a moral duty to care for their well-being and pass on our biological legacy in good order to future generations.

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