Folder Biodiversity Loss



Fundamental Cause

The root causes of biodiversity loss are population growth and increasing natural resource consumption.   The world's population has more than tripled in the 20th Century and projections show that continued growth is expected over the next 50 years.  At the present pace, the Earth's renewable resources are rapidly being depleted.  According to the Ecological Footprint and many other studies, human consumption of renewable resources has surpassed the Earth's ability to regenerate them.  The expected doubling of the world's population over the next 50 years will exacerbate these pressures.     

The pressure on the environment from growing populations is exacerbated by the patterns and levels of Humanity's renewable resource consumption.  The combination of a growing population coupled with unsustainable resource use patterns is the dire problem facing humanity.  The average resident of an industrialized nation uses 15 times as much paper, 10 times as much steel, and 12 times as much fuel as a person in a developing country (Alan Durning, State of the World 1991, World Watch Institute).  Population growth and increasing resource consumption affect biodiversity in two ways:

  • They create pressure to convert wildlife habitat into agricultural and urban land; and
  • They produce wastes that pollute habitat and poison wildlife.

However, these trends can be off-set by stabilizing population growth, using the Earth's natural resources more efficiently, and recycling and controlling pollution.

Understanding Species and Ecosystems

Knowledge about the world's life forms is well behind other fields of scientific inquiry.  Although a great deal is known about individual species of birds, fishes, mammals, and plant, fewer than 1.4 million of the world's 5-30 million species have been named, let alone studied.  Information is also limited on the condition and value of biological resources, as well as uses and management techniques employed by traditional cultures over centuries.  Traditional knowledge, which has sustained many indigenous peoples for centuries, is rapidly disappearing.  Compounding the problem is the lack of trained scientists in many developing countries where biodiversity loss is most prominent.   

National Policies

Government policies designed to encourage some sectors, such as agriculture and forestry, also encourages the destruction of biodiversity.  This is especially true if these policies do not incorporate sustainable development components as part of the development requirement.  Lack of coordination between government agencies with overlapping responsibilities may also result in loss of biodiversity.  For example, an environmental agency mandated to halt or minimize deforestation will be in conflict with another agency that is trying to boost economic growth in the agricultural sector.   Agencies such as the ones highlighted in the example need to communicate to ensure that governmental programs coordinate to protect the environment while facilitating economic growth.  This is especially true in developing countries where human, technical, and financial capacity is limited.

Effects of Globalization

The world economies reliance on trade has greatly influenced nations to build their economic sectors base on comparative advantage and specialization.  For example, in many developing countries, which rely heavily on agricultural commodities for export earnings, have turned to large-scale plantations focusing on a small range of crops that are in demand on the world market.  However, as the variety of crop species declines, so too does the complex system of supporting species that would have evolved with traditional agricultural systems.  The growth of such farming systems has often been at the expense of species-rich forests, wetlands, and diverse small-scale agricultural lands. 

Resource Distribution

People who depend on the natural resources provided by their surroundings have a strong interest in maintaining the productivity of those resources.  However, more often than not, local communities see little benefit of those resources but are left with paying the cost for their unsustainable use.  The inequities in who manages resources versus who receives their benefits can be found between rich and poor, men and women, and among societal groups. 

Globally, there are inequities between rich and poor countries.  The rich countries have the technology and financial capability to develop and exploit natural resources in the poorer countries where the resources typically exist.  For example, a successful drug for childhood leukemia has been developed from the rosy periwinkle of Madagascar, but none of the $100 million annual estimated revenue has flowed back to its country of origin (M.D. Jenkins, ed., Madagascar: An Environmental Profile, World Conservation Monitoring Center).

The Value of Biodiversity

The value of goods and services derived from biodiversity are typically not taken into consideration or undervalued, thereby promoting (directly or indirectly) their depletion.  The value of biodiversity are almost totally ignored in national economic accounts because it is so difficult to value.  However, when markets undervalue biodiversity, policies may encourage unsustainable or destructive activities.  (See How Much Are Nature's Services Worth? and Ecosystems Services: Free, But Valuable.)

Root Causes

The causes of biodiversity loss described above do not operate in isolation, but rather tend to act with and exacerbate one another.  In order to preserve and manage biodiversity:

  • we must gain greater understanding our natural environment;
  • traditional knowledge must be preserved;
  • governmental policies should facilitate responsible and sustainable resource use;
  • economic incentives should not contradict environmental priorities; and
  • local communities must be involved in, and see the benefits of, the use of their natural resources.   

In order to be effective in addressing the sustainable management of resources, biodiversity issues must be incorporated throughout national planning processes.  A wholistic approach to sustainable use of natural resources must be taken to ensure that, from inception to completion, biodiversity issues are incorporated into all facets of development.