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What the Heck Is Biodiversity? And Why Should We Care?

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In his upcoming book, Hot, Flat, and Crowded, Thomas Friedman laments the lack of public interest in biodiversity, an issue that he claims is as, if not more, critical than climate change. If you are like me -- before I researched the topic -- you may not even know what the word means. Sounds like some concept, straight out of a biology book. Which it is. And that's part of the problem. A quick, informal survey amongst my daughters' high school friends, was met with blank stares and a unanimous, "Biodiversity, what's that?". Even the president of the school's environmental club did not know. These are supposedly well educated young girls. Similarly, a recent Gallup Survey, Attitudes of Europeans Towards the Issue of Biodiversity, reveals that only 35% of Europeans understand what biodiversity means, and most see no immediate personal impact of biodiversity. The survey also shows a widespread lack of understanding of the causes and consequences of biodiversity.

So what exactly is biodiversity? According to a Stanford University press release announcing this week's publication of Paul Ehrlich and Robert Pringle's paper, "Where Does Biodiversity Go from Here? A Grim Business-as-Usual Forecast and a Hopeful Portfolio of Partial Solutions" -- released yesterday in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences Online:

Even if you don't like the outdoors, you're probably pretty fond of air, clean water and food. That makes you a fan of biodiversity, because those essentials for life -- human and otherwise -- are maintained as a direct result of the Earth's biodiversity, the abundance and variety of species and populations on the planet. Preserving a substantial amount of biodiversity is critical to a healthy future for us.

That's the short answer, and one I can work with.

The reason we should care so much about biodiversity is that it is being increasingly threatened, as we keep encroaching on natural habitats, and polluting our air, water and soil. Raising temperatures from climate change also represent a threat to ecosystems all over the world. Last week alone, came three alarming reports. First was "Ocean Dead Zones Become Worldwide Problem," then "Dying Frogs Signs of a Biodiversity Crisis," and "Climate Change Threatens one of five plant species in Germany." If you pay attention to the news, you will notice, the number and severity of biodiversity crises going up at an alarming rate.

Next comes the question of what can you and I do, as individual citizens and members of our communities? I scanned the Ehrlich and Pringle paper for some answers, and came up with a list, not unlike what you would recommend for climate change solutions:

1) Use contraception and limit the number of children.
2) Fund humanitarian efforts that promote women's education and employment, and access to contraception.
3) Take your children on nature outings.
4) Minimize consumption of non-renewable resources, following the "less is more" principle.
5) Substitute pork and beef with farm-raised poultry and fish.
6) Minimize driving.
7) Support and participate in conservation and restoration of biological preserves.
8) Preserve remnant trees.
9) Favor ecotourism.
10) Share your knowledge of science and nature on the Web and in schools.
11) Share this article with a friend.

Which of these recommended actions are you already following? Which new one are you willing to take on?

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