Biodiversity: Ubuntu of the Wilderness
Genes, Species & Ecosystems in balance
A friend has a hillside spring. It feeds a pond surrounded by wild fynbos. When I visited recently she told me of how, wanting a little more control, she decided to dam it. Not a big project. Something she could do herself. She started digging and reshaping. Soon the spring stopped giving. She let it be for a few days, and the water came back.
On the radio on the drive home an environmentalist was interviewed about Cape Town’s plans to tap into groundwater aquifers. It reminded me of something I’d read. On a vaster scale, but perhaps due to similar dynamics, the extraction of California’s natural groundwater has resulted in land subsistence. Roads and irrigation canals are being damaged at a monthly rate of half an inch. Water reserves are now under threat. Come a drought and Californian farms could turn to dust.
Closer to home might the Cape Floral Kingdom suffer similarly if its groundwater has been misused?
World Wild Web
Over billions of years the earth’s organic networks have sustained earthlings. Adapting as they evolved from region to region, these natural systems thrive by building resilience through reciprocity.
We depend on mutual interaction. We get food and oxygen from plants. Birds nest in their branches. But in their rooted immobility plants need help; so the winged ones spread their pollen. And along with birds we disperse plant seeds.
Below ground earthworms and fungi also help plants communicate and grow. Plants in turn aid their lives. Deeper still, the organic sludge and rocky remains of our earthly ancestors and the vast forests they once lived among now light up our lives. It fuels our flight and road trips. What remains of the spent fuel, carbon, is also an element that is naturally part of us. Our bodies are made up of it. Yet, recent over-exploitation of it has thrown its planetary presence out of balance. Critically weakening the environment's resilience to sustain life as we know it, it's now a dirty word.
Bio-balancing human priorities, and ecosystems.
There is a well-known Finish study of a border region. It tells of how on one side of the boundary fast habitat loss had occurred through ‘development’. People there had more allergies compared to those living just over in Russia. This area was less developed. People there lived closer to nature. They were exposed to a rich biodiversity of bacterial and other organisms.
New York City provides another example of the benefits of maintaining natural ecosytems. In the late eighties, epidemics broke out in some American cities. They were caused by water-borne micro-parasites like giardia. It prompted New York to take preemptive action. They planned to mechanically filter the 1.4 billion gallons of water the city needed daily. The cost: 8 billion dollars.
But then they thought of another plan. New York’s water mainly travels down from the Catskills mountains. Problem was habitat loss. Rapid urban development was destroying the biodiversity of the water catchment area. This meant degraded water quality.
NYC ensured the quality of its water supply by paying landowners in the catchment area not to develop their properties. This maintained biodiversity in the area. It allowed nature’s complex ecosystems to filter the water. The cost: one billion dollars. It also uses far less energy. The Catskills provides one of the largest sources of clean, naturally filtered water on the planet. Although the dictates of sound finance drove this outcome in New York, less wise profit motives dictate the pace of ecocide globally.
The City of Cape Town plans to degrade an important aquifer.
About half of the Philippi Horticultural Area is still wild. About 1 500 hectares is farmed. It makes Cape Town one of the few cities that provides a large percentage of its fresh produce within its boundaries. About 150 000 tonnes of vegetables and flowers a year are harvested. Thanks to the aquifer below it, it yields all year round. Without it, higher food miles would get clocked up in the dry season through food imports.
It is predicted that covering it in concrete will mean less water will seep into replenish the aquifer. Food will have to be brought in from further afield. Food security and the jobs of thousands of people working there will be jeopardized. The benefits of a green space so close to densely packed impoverished communities will be lost.
On the one hand politicians agree with the scientific rationale behind the Paris Climate Accords. On the other they talk up rapid economic growth as the cure-all for society's most pressing issues. But is it?
Though China is reversing poverty through manufacturing, some countries which have long been awash in material comfort suffer high levels of suicide. Many are convulsed in social and political discontent.
And while China catches up, some of its largest factories reportedly have safety nets installed. Despairing workers, some say wage slaves, have been throwing their lives away. Lives that economic indices claim the free market system has improved.
But how improved can they be when we have to swallow such a poisoned cost? China, like the USA, can't guarantee the safety of the soil it grows basic staples in, like rice.
Meanwhile conservationists take whatever they can protect - small patches of the planet still left relatively unscathed. One way of doing so is by proclaiming reserves and national parks.
In the Cape Floral Kingdom, a biodiversity hot-spot, a large majority of endangered land is privately owned. It falls outside of government regulation. A programme of land stewardship encourages conservation. This is through backing from the World Bank, and provision of expertise and technical help from the province.
However, the scientifically proven and spiritually palpable value of maintaining natural ecological balances is at the mercy of an idea: an economic model that generations have been indoctrinated into seeing as some kind of equally natural force. As humanity's only way to thrive.
It leads conservation-minded people to say 'if it pays its stays.' But these days paying to afford wildlife conservation ultimately means manufacturing more stuff to sell. That includes foodstuff. Where people have become materially richer in the West, as is presently happening in Asia too, changes in diet occur, to a more flesh-based one. Raising chickens and cattle uses land and particularly inefficiently. It ravishes ecosystems.
To the wilderness within
Humans drifted into pastoralism thousands of years ago. Until then epidemics were unknown. Disease did kill. But foragers existed in small widely dispersed bands. The kindling for contagion came with the move into an easy-meat culture which necessitated human settlement. Static communities provide conditions for the spread of infectious disease. War-culture too.
Murder and displacement are tied to the expansion of profitable animal industries from beef to ivory. Spear-fought skirmishes in defense of grazing turf has brought us to the mushroom-cloud moment.
Bird flu, swine flu, mad cow disease incubate on farms. They are consequences of unbalanced ecosystems not working in our favour. We throw antibiotics at some of these problems. Drug-resistant super-bugs have resulted.
I don't regard nature as a moral force. Once I'm gone I don't suspect that for my sins I'll return as a rat or microbe or any other designated lesser being. Yet perhaps the spiritual dreamers, those Buddhist inventors of the notion of spiritual payback, were onto something. Could karma symbolize nature's backlash visited on our re-incarnates, our children and theirs? How 'great' will they be, because of what we are now?