Biodiversity – After Attenborough


After watching Sir David Attenborough’s “A Life on Planet Earth” recently, Jane blogs about understanding biodiversity in a different light. 

JC: I considered myself pretty well-versed in the conversation around shrinking biodiversity. At The Botanist, we talk about safeguarding biodiversity fairly regularly. We have a vested interest because there are 22 ingredients we harvest wild from the island; so we directly rely on biodiversity to make our gin! Besides that, one of the lovely projects that The Botanist Foundation has funded on Islay which I’ve had to report on in my role in the distillery’s newsroom, has been to increase the island’s ranks of pollinators by gathering data about the wildflowers and grasses on Islay’s roadside verges, and using that data to influence the council’s policy on which verges to cut and when. Recently, I’ve had the privilege of talking to knowledgable botanists and conservationist and scientists and activists around the world through our BGCI partnership and finding out more about their work. Plus, for 5 years I’ve been lucky to be one of the Islay points of contact for an inspirational network of foragers that spreads across the world. 

But something about Attenborough’s long life and first person perspective in the Netflix documentary made it all extremely simple to understand. Biodiversity is being lost because the land it has available to it is being lost. Biodiversity loss is the same thing as habitat loss. Land is being lost because we are taking it for other purposes. Growing our food, for example. Building places for ourselves to live. 

The next questions, of course, are why are we growing food like this? Is there another way? And the answer, as any biodynamic farmer or forager for that matter will give you, is yes. Why are we building so many places for ourselves to live? Because there are so many of us; with no predators and modern medicines, with our intelligence, we have broken out of the natural population constraints faced by every other species. Attenborough points to Japan as a model of how society can arrive at an alternative curb – through choice, essentially, the female choice, which comes about through education and a more equal sharing out of wealth and power between the sexes.

Another interesting angle in the programme, was how biodiversity connects with climate change. I confess I had previously been considering them as separate issues, perhaps even issues that were in competition with each other, being influenced by research such as this article. If you look at the entire history of the planet, human ascendancy is a blink at the end, in which we have prospered thanks to an era stable climactic conditions. Predictable seasons, water at the right time in the right quantity, heat at the right time, gave us and the plants we rely on a rhythm of planting and harvesting. This era “the holocene” – from the Greek words for whole and for new – the whole new earth. For Attenborough, that era is already gone.

If you take plants or species out of the equation then they can neither add, nor subtract anything from it. A rainforest left to do its thing, for example, will take and store carbon from out of the atmosphere, and create rain through transpiration. If, as the UN accounts,  we have already cut down half of the world’s forest areas, we can only expect its performance in terms of rain and carbon to be reduced by half too.

Oceans have been shielding us from the worst impacts of our actions, absorbing the extra heat and extra carbon, says Attenborough. But we are reaching a tipping point there, at which they’ll no longer be able to support the same levels of marine life. The NASA analysis of the difference between a water temperature rise of 1.5 degrees and 2 degrees is terrifying.  That’s without considering the direct pollution and eutrophication which additionally deoxygenates the water. [See our article “On Coasts” >>]  If oceans die, their carbon sequestration ceases to function, and the holocene and all its lifeforms are in exponential amounts of trouble.

We can no longer work in an ‘Islay’ bubble, or an ‘inner city’ bubble, or any kind of local bubble

Previously, for me, it’s been a comfort to be living on a remote island. My belief has been that here things can be different, we’ll be alright, there’s an “opt out” of some of society’s other ills. But an island by definition is in an ocean – and it’s the same ocean which is experiencing the annual deadzones in, for instance, the Mississippi Delta. Weather and seasons, they aren’t locally determined. Fungal infections which are affecting plants and trees and insects are finding their way over to Islay. We can no longer work in an ‘Islay’ bubble, or an ‘inner city’ bubble, or any kind of local bubble; the climate connects us all, the amount of species being lost is on a global ledger.

As part of our juniper conservation project, the Botanist Foundation is supporting a PhD student to look into the genetics of different juniper populations, including the prostrate variety that is native but rare in Islay, to see if there is any chance of resistance to these kinds of invisible threat. Analysing genetic diversity is one way of trying to understand potential resilience. But it doesn’t create resilience. If the diversity is lost, it doesn’t matter how we read it, or whether we know it, the vulnerability is there.

Working with our partners who are pioneering plant conservation in their own botanic gardens around the world, through Botanic Gardens Conservation International, has been so inspiring and refreshing in this context. The work being done by Don Kirkwood in Stellenbosch, or Milton Diaz and his team in Xalapa, is making a positive difference, pushing biodiversity change in the other direction.

An additional resonance in their work, with obscure species, thousands of miles away, comes from knowing that one of the causes of the habitat loss they’re experiencing comes from planting of vines for Renosterveld wines, or the growing of Mexican coffee. As consumers, we have to start asking more questions about where our food and drink comes from.

And of course, if you are foraging, you know exactly where some of your food and drink has come from, because you’ve stood there. You, like us, can personally guarantee that they were gathered in a sustainable way, only picked from abundant spots, that you’ve only taken what you need etc. Whatever the ominous bigger picture, foraging is a brilliant way to get in touch with the beauty and generosity of our amazing planet in the here and now. And here’s hoping that the wisdom and gravitas of people like Sir David Attenborough is what prevails for our shared future.

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