The Value of Biodiversity
Too often, human activities greatly diminish biodiversity: genetic diversity is lost, species go extinct, ecosystems are degraded and polluted. Does this matter? Should we care?
Yes! The loss of any species means the loss of invaluable information that could help us solve future problems, even tricky problems such as how to design more effective medicines, wind turbines or buildings.
Moreover, ecosystems provide us with a variety of extremely valuable and often irreplaceable services. They maintain processes essential to human well-being such as providing food and medicines, facilitating pollination and water security, and cycling oxygen, carbon and other important chemicals between the soil, air and water.
The value of species to ecosystems
These so-called ecosystem services are not only freely provided by nature, but also essential to human well-being. And these vital services are more effective and productive when there are many species around: the more species there are, the better ecosystems work.
While we cannot say for sure that every single species is of direct value to humans, the multitude of species ensures the good and stable functioning of ecosystems, which, in return, provide multiple benefits to human well-being.
Finally, all these ecosystems around the world then make up the life-support system of the earth, and, as Robert Scholes points out, that has infinite value.
The inspirational value of ecosystems
Besides these really tangible benefits, nature also gives us beauty and inspiration: green trees, colourful flowers, dainty butterflies … nature enriches our life in many ways that go beyond cash flow transactions.
For sure, not everything can and should be qualified in monetary terms, such as the beauty of nature and the value of diverse life itself. Nevertheless, when economists joined forces with ecologists, they estimated that the total monetary value of ecosystem services is at least equivalent to the wealth produced by all of the human economies of the world.
The value of ecosystems to poor and rural people
While we are all dependent on this web of life for our existence, and we all benefit from it, we should take note that it is often the poor and rural people who are directly affected when biodiversity declines, such as when mining operations or water dams take their land to provide resources and energy for the better-off people living in urban areas. Cost-benefit analyses show that often the economic gain from such developments, e.g., mining, is offset by the economic loss, e.g., the loss of fresh water, food and the other services provided by the ecosystem which was destroyed by the mining. Therefore, destruction of biodiversity is often uneconomical, but the gains from that destruction do benefit certain special interest groups, e.g., mining companies.
Whether the living world should be protected because it has rights of its own or because of its economic and other benefits to human societies is a difficult moral question, but we certainly will make it very difficult for us to have a good life on a planet with severely diminished or collapsed ecosystems.