Brown: Biodiversity in the world is important

Phil Brown

America: home of the free, land of the brave and sanctuary of an “out-of-control regulatory state.” Now which one of these doesn’t quite sound right? If you ask many American citizens, such as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), they might say all three apply equally. Cruz, who recently diversified his personal platform to expand his energy policy, laments what he sees as a federal bureaucracy out of touch with the needs and desires of the American people.

The policies Cruz proposes mainly revolve around cutting red tape for domestic energy, such as his desire to see an end to federal regulation of fracking, a relatively new and controversial method of extracting fossil fuels. Cruz also insists that liquified natural gas (LNG) is being unfairly regulated, claiming, “The bureaucratic paperwork to export LNG has been mind-numbingly slow.”

Federal regulations aimed at protecting our environment and checking up on energy producers are commonly defended with reference to global climate change and its connection to fossil fuels. There is another, albeit related, reason to encourage the protection of the natural world, however.

Biodiversity, or the variety of organisms living in their natural environment, is just as important a reason to proceed with caution when we impact our world. Of course, biodiversity is affected by climate change, but other man-made factors have negative impacts that should be regulated as well.

For example, here in Iowa, a brief report on fish species of greatest conservation need in our rivers, accessible through the Iowa Department of Natural Resources website, claims that “rivers and streams in particular, support the majority of [North American freshwater fish] biodiversity. Unfortunately, most large rivers are highly fragmented by dams, and are notably prone to habitat degradation and upstream pollution.”

Like Iowa’s ecosystems, bionetworks around the world are in need of protection to preserve their flora and fauna. While charismatic animals like the bald eagle or polar bear may attract considerable support for their conservation, a great many less-than-appealing species are just as important, if not more so. This is because, in addition to the aesthetic appeal of wildlife, biodiversity grants many other benefits.

First and foremost, protecting biodiversity means that there will be a greater amount of genetic variability on Earth. While all living beings share the same genetic code, specific genes can often be found only in a small number of species. In today’s world, where genetic engineering is growing at an extraordinary rate, the genetic products of so-far unutilized plants and animals are becoming economically valuable.

Many students who have taken introductory biology courses have probably heard of experiments where different animals were made to glow in the dark by the addition of a certain fluorescent jellyfish protein. Far beyond making wacky fish and mice, the green fluorescent protein of the crystal jelly, also known by its scientific name of Aequorea victoria, has been instrumental in helping researchers to understand brain function and the spread of some cancer cells. Many of our modern synthetic medications are also imitations of naturally occurring plant products, such as aspirin, which is identical to a compound found in the bark of willow trees. As a natural medicine, willow bark has been used for the same purpose for centuries.

While these are only a few examples, the vast majority of genetic information in the world has yet to be decoded or even discovered. It is incredibly irresponsible for us to drive potentially beneficial endangered animals and plants to extinction, simply because they have no known value.

In addition to their potential for human value, the vast array of organisms on Earth perform vital functions for their native ecosystems. The various scientific fields dedicated to studying the organic and inorganic relationships of the world’s biomes have only scratched the surface of our potential understanding. All of the important ecological niches filled by the various species on Earth is a question that has only begun to be answered.

On top of all of these potential services, it is important for us as humans to ask ourselves whether or not we really have the right to cause the extinction of other species. Extinction is a natural occurrence, and certain periods have been identified where there were massive amounts of species all leaving existence. Despite this, there has never before been a time when humans were the cause of so many extinctions.

Regulations designed to protect the environment and our fellow organisms may upset those such as Sen. Cruz, but there are important reasons for us to preserve our natural world. To shrug these off as unimportant is not only denying us of potentially beneficial discoveries, but will leave permanent losses to the world’s inherent biodiversity.