Granite Geek: The Vitality of Biodiversity

May 17, 2017

Scientists who study the environment keep track of the number and variety of plants and animals in a region—they call that biodiversity. Studies show biodiversity is plummeting worldwide due to human activity, and understanding why biodiversity matters now could help us stop the loss.

NHPR’s Peter Biello spoke with David Brooks, who writes the Granite Geek column for the Concord Monitor, about the importance of biodiversity.

In your column, you make an analogy between biodiversity and capitalism. Can you elaborate on that?

Biodiversity, to me, is environmental capitalism, whereas lack of biodiversity is environmental communism. I grew with the Soviet Union as the bad guys over the hill. What they would do is have a top-down analysis that said, we are going to concentrate on this, and not on anything else. Whereas in capitalism, it was like devil take the hindmost and everybody charge around and try whatever you want.

I think it’s very much the same way for biodiversity. Biodiversity, you have a whole bunch of different species and types of plants, animals, insects, whatever, in an ecosystem competing—“nature red in tooth and claw” as the line goes.

Lack of biodiversity, a monoculture—if we’ve cut everything down and planted one crop and used pesticides to wipe out all the insects—that’s communism. It’s one thing that’s been ordered from above, Leonid Brezhnev has come in and changed your field, and when it collapses, it collapses badly.

To expand on that example, is a forest that’s made up of just maple trees less healthy than a forest that’s made up of maple, birch, and oak?

Absolutely. So let’s take ash trees for example. They’re about 15 percent or so of the hardwoods in New England and they’re being devastated by the emerald ash borer. There’s a good chance that they’ll all be wiped out.

If the ash trees were 80 percent of the forest and they all got wiped out, it would be a real disaster. That’s actually happening out west with pine beetles, which are wiping out species of conifers in forests where there’s much less biodiversity. And suddenly all the trees are dead at once. It’s a real problem.

Can you give us a rundown of the reasons to preserve biodiversity?

On one level, there’s the tree hugger version—all life is precious. That’s a great argument and that’s a valid one.

Another one is the utility argument. Much of what we use in our world, from medicines to materials, is based on natural products. There’s stuff out there that we could make use of.

The third argument is unintended consequences. It probably won’t do anything wrong if we turn this diverse forest into a monoculture of trees for the pulp mill, but it might, and we really don’t know because biological systems are so complicated.

The argument against biodiversity seems like an economic one. For example, paving over a forest to make room for a parking lot.

Yeah, or take your house. Your yard is much less biodiverse than the field or the forest it replaced, but are you going to be living on the street because you don’t want to harm the biodiversity by building your house? Probably not. So it’s a tough balance.

If it were easy to preserve biodiversity, we would presumably already be doing it. What are some examples of the tradeoffs we would need to make as a society to preserve biodiversity?

The most obvious one is economic—so for example, preserving wilderness, setting aside land that says you can’t go in there, you can’t drill for the oil that’s underneath it, you can’t drive your ATVs around. That’s a sacrifice.

There was a talk a while ago about turning the Midwest back into buffalo preserve. But if somebody came in and said, you can’t frack in North Dakota anymore because we need to preserve the prairie there, that would be a very difficult decision for society to make.