Diversity

August 10, 2012  •  Leave a Comment

Vanilla and Blueberry Jellies

I stood in line for 45 minutes, mostly out in the Chicago summer heat and humidity, waiting to visit the Shedd Aquarium.  A native Chicagoan, I had seen this venue a few times, but not for many years now.  I was with my fiance and she had never been to Chicago, so naturally we spent some time downtown.  There is probably no better place in the US to sample diversity than downtown Chicago.  People of every size, shape, color, language, and even odor, in a constant parade through the museum campus.  Yes, diversity on display.  I am enthralled, interested, at times amused, as I watch this microcosm of humanity.  I am irritated as I see a couple let their dog drink from a park drinking fountain.  Saddened by a homeless man lying under a tree with his plastic bag of treasures.  Encouraged as I notice a mom actually teaching her child good manners.  But most of all, proud to see so many nationalities co-mingling so peacefully.  Says a lot about America.

This is the diversity you hear about every day.  Human diversity.  But inside the Shedd is a diversity that is far more important in the overall scheme of life on earth - one you NEVER hear about.  Biodiversity.  According to Wiki, biodiversity is the degree of variation of life forms within a given species, ecosystem, biome, or an entire planet.  More broadly, biodiversity fuels evolution.  The human race itself would not have developed if not for the rich biodiversity that evolved over many millions of years since the beginning of life.

Biodiversity is nature's strategy for survival and progress.  It is a measure of, and a protector of, the health of ecosystems.  We have many examples of the effects of mankind's tinkering with this strategy.  One of the best examples started back in the late 1920's and early 1930's, when our government encouraged farmers to seek their fortunes by plowing up the native grasslands in Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas, and planting wheat.  They did this to encourage settlement in those frontier states.  Biodiversity on the plains created an ecosystem well adapted to the erratic weather in this semi-arid zone, and the grasslands flourished.  Farming eliminated this diversity and replaced it with a single species that was unable to contend with adverse drought conditions.  The result was that millions of acres became barren, and the ground was whisked into the sky by never-ending storms. 

The infamous Dust Bowl is just one example of the effects of declining biodiversity.  Unfortunately, small examples occur every day and go unreported.  Sometimes we draw a line in the sand and fight over a species.  The spotted owl caused a lot of grief to timber companies a few years back.  Many folks simply could not understand the importance of such a critter when their livelihoods were at stake.  A valid concern for those who might suffer financially.  Yet over time, the cumulative effects of losing a species here or there become disastrous.  It takes thousands of years for a new species to develop - evolution is not an overnight process that can be dictated by Congress.  Yet we can wipe one out in a decade.  According to one report I've read, current extinction rates are at least 100 to 1,000 times higher than natural rates found in the fossil record.  Obviously, determining such figures is not an exact science, but we all know that species are being eliminated much faster than they are being created.  And we all know this is due to man's impact on the environment. 

What does all this mean?  A declining biodiversity means we are putting the brakes on evolution.  We can no longer depend, to the same degree, on nature's perfected strategies for dealing with climate change.  The source of genetic materials will decline, and so will the ability to make new discoveries for pharmacology and other purposes.  Our global ecosystem will become more precarious. 

Exhibits like the Jellies at the Shedd are absolutely wonderful.  Perhaps they will inspire wonder among our youth, and encourage visitors to see the value in protecting what we have. 


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