The environment has been a central issue in my daily life and activism career. Politics and other traditional Lebanese activism issues seem not only less important, but petty when compared to the dangers that face our environment and biodiversity.
Which brings me to a central issue many activists and most lay people are not aware of, or at least not enough. Biodiversity is a very valuable characteristic generously bestowed upon us by millennia of natural selection. Rumor amongst cancer researchers has it that the immense biodiversity of life in the Amazon Rain Forest should provide enough combinations to include ones that can fight or prevent most human cancers. I’d like to be that optimistic, but even if that isn’t entirely true, it highlights the fact that many of the answers we seek lie already hidden in Nature. We are decimating that biodiversity at a depressing rate… Unfortunately, the stupendous efforts of environmentalists does not really help preserve this unfathomable treasure…
Let us take a minute to consider the most famous environmentalist campaign in history: Save the Whales movement. I love whales, I love dolphins, I love tigers and every other animal on Earth. I feel more compassionate towards animals than people, and campaigns that aim to save the tigers, dolphins, sea turtles, polar bears and so many other endangered animals have been a priority, and continue to be.
Unfortunately, delving deeper into the science of life, one begins to realize that in reality if whales or tigers disappear off the face of the Earth, it wouldn’t impact our biodiversity much. It also becomes clear that no irreplaceable service is done by those animals we love and cherish so much. I still absolutely love them and will keep fighting to save them, for I cannot immagine a world without polar bears and pandas or an ocean without dolphins and whales, animals that have saved our lives and inspired us ever since we became conscious of how special we are.
However, we must face the facts sooner or later. The organisms we need most are located in the incredibly diverse realms of creepy crawlies and microorganisms. An obvious reason would be that these organisms are many million times as numerous as us higher living things, much more versatile and incredibly diverse. Apart from being a tresure trove of biodiversity, these living things provide us with vital services and products that we cannot possibly live without.
Phytoplankton account for 50% of the total photosynthetic activity on Earth. Photosynthesis is the production of sugar (glucose) and oxygen from carbon dioxide and water. In other words, these tiny organisms account for half of the total oxygen available for us to breathe and filter the CO2 from our atmosphere. You probably didn’t know that, and no one can be blamed, after all, no one organizes sit-ins to protect phytoplankton, or an International Phytoplankton Day.
This has been a troubling issue for me for a while, but the general environmentalist movement never seemed to address this head-on, so this concern took a back seat in my mind until… A recent comment by my Ecology Professor at AUB, Riyad Sadek, made me realize that other people have tuned into this worrying phenomenon in modern eco-friendly activism (yes, I’m that full of myself and thought I knew better than everyone else =P)
He might have been a bit harsh on environmentalists, who risk their lives and safety every day in order to protect animals and plants that cannot fend for themselves, but he had a point. Personally, I believe it is essential we keep and enforce our current efforts to protect iconic animals such as the whale, the dolphin, the bear, the tiger, the turtle and the panda. However, I feel we are falling very short of our responsibilities as the most capable animal on Earth.
The passion, resources, science and time we allocate to protect our closest cousins and favorite furry animals should be replicated for the bacteria and other microorganisms we rely on so much. I will not delve into this specific topic, which I already discussed in depth here. But remember, we cannot breathe, eat, or medicate ourselves, much less maintain Earth’s climate and atmosphere without these organisms. It is time to increase the scope of our global operations by including these misunderstood, unknown soldiers of the Biosphere we call home.