The Role of diversity in the Natural World

Overgrown Redwood Log and Wildflowers by David Sifry

Author and activist Derrick Jensen says that apart from destroying bio-diversity on Earth, we are collapsing the diversity of knowledge and expressions we consider important.

Printed below are excerpts from an interview with him by the MOON magazine.

The MOON:What does diversity do for ecosystems? Why is diversity important?

Jensen:That’s like asking why can’t everyone be an oncologist. What kind of functioning society would that be? Nature creates diversity because there are so many roles to be performed in an ecosystem that one species can’t perform them all. In the natural world, you need plants to convert sunlight into substance; pollinators to pollinate the plants; animals to eat the plants and fertilize the soil; predators to keep small animal populations in check; and still other species to dispose off dead carcasses. In fact, you need so many more species and complex interrelationships than we even have the capability to recognize. It’s like the David Ehrenfeld line: “Not only is the world more complex than we think it is, the world is more complex than we are able to think it is.”

For example, I’m sitting here in a second-growth redwood forest, which also includes willows and cedar and fir trees. When they deforested parts of the Pacific Northwest of Douglas firs, they tried replanting them, but the firs didn’t do well. Eventually they discovered that there is a fungus associated with firs in the forest, and voles associated with the fungus, and this three-way relationship is important to the health of the firs. The fungus lives off the firs, the voles eat the fungus and defecate fungus spores, the spores are rich in nutrients that have been broken down sufficiently that the root tips of the firs can absorb them, and the firs flourish. It’s easy for humans to think, “Oh, who cares if we lose a certain kind of fungus or rodent?” We don’t realize that the loss of the fungus and the vole could also mean the loss of fir trees—which in our utilitarian-motivated culture means losing everything from construction materials to toilet paper—in addition to such non-commercial goods as beauty, oxygen, and shade.

Of course, there’s a moral dimension to this too. I believe that other species have a right to exist regardless of their potential usefulness to us. It’s extremely arrogant to think that what we find useful is the arbiter of a species’ right to exist—to say nothing of the fact that our definition of utility changes over time. For example, a couple hundred years ago there were thousands of varieties of apples. But now we’ve bred apple varieties down to a few that have optimal taste and nutritional value and we’ve lost all the rest. Some of the genetic diversity we’ve bred out of apples perhaps protected them from certain kinds of pests. By breeding that characteristic out, that capacity is gone—forever.

That’s the weakness in all monocrop agriculture. When you plow a field, you destroy all of the bacteria, fungi, and other life in the soil and you destroy the habitat for all of the creatures who lived in the rich variety of plants that once occupied the land. So where can the insect and disease predators live? Then, by planting a single crop, you create the perfect habitat for the pests of that crop—and no one else. The pest mows through the crop like wildfire. It’s what makes agriculture so dependent upon artificial pesticides today.

Nature tends to increase the diversity of an ecosystem over time. We’re taught that evolution advances through survival of the fittest, which implies competition. But if you look more closely you see that the creatures who have survived in the long run, survived in the long run by improving their environment over time. One of the ways you improve your environment over time is by increasing its diversity. The more diverse an environment, the more “niches,” or opportunities, there are for other organisms to live. The more organisms there are in an ecosystem, the more stable it is—like legs on a table.

You know, one aspect of diversity we seldom think about is soil diversity. It’s said that a spoonful of healthy soil contains millions of organisms, including beneficial species of bacteria, fungi, protozoa, micro-arthropods and nematodes. These organisms help plants obtain nutrients and water from the soil, to prevent nutrient losses, to protect them from pathogens, and to degrade compounds that could inhibit growth. Some mycelial networks extend for literally hundreds of acres through the soil. There are fungi in Oregon that span several square miles and are thousands of years old. These mycelial networks transfer nutrients from the edges of the forest, where there is sunlight, into the depth of the forest where sunlight may not be able to penetrate. And that’s just one example of the role diversity plays in an ecosystem. How can we be so arrogant to think that we know enough to obliterate networks of life that have existed for millennia? Diversity confers resilience. It also confers stability. It’s like the legs of a table; the more legs you have, the less likely your table will fall over.

The MOON:  Can we re-diversify our planet?

Jensen:I don’t know. I think it’s highly probable we’ll kill the planet—because too many people are cut off from the awareness that we are killing the planet. That’s another aspect of diversity we’ve lost: diversity of experience; diversity of intelligence. That’s what I write about in Culture of Make Believe. We watch television or sit on the internet and think we have this diversity of choices—the fishing channel, the sports channel, the home improvement channel; or Yahoo, AOL, or Al-Jazeera. But we’re still just watching television; we’re still just sitting at the computer.

I live in a forest and when I first moved here about ten years ago, you literally could not have a conversation outside at night because the frogs were so loud. About five years ago, that changed. I asked one of my neighbors if he’d noticed that the frogs were a lot quieter now; or there were a lot fewer frogs; and he said no, he hadn’t noticed that. He hadn’t been outside at night. But I assure you that if the San Francisco Forty-Niners went away, he’d know it instantly.

I’m not saying that because I dislike sports; I love sports. I’m just saying that “civilization” has created a uniformity of experience which is cutting us off from the feedback loops that would alert us to the grave danger we’re in. We don’t realize what’s happening to our home because we don’t actually live there. We live in a manufactured culture in which Angelina Jolie is more real to us than the songbirds outside our window. In fact, I can only identify the songs of about five birds, but I can name fifty to one hundred corporate jingles. That’s part of the diversity problem: we’re collapsing the diversity of knowledge and experiences we consider important.

We also operate under the illusion that human intelligence is superior to all other intelligence. But there are all sorts of intelligences operating on the planet that we’re not even aware of. Is that intelligent? For example, trees release hormones in the fall that tell the fish it’s time to slow their metabolism because winter is coming; it’s time to conserve energy. In the spring, they release other hormones that tell the fish it’s okay to wake up now and start moving again. That’s a level of interspecies cooperation we’ve only recently become aware of. Yet we still suffer from human supremacism—the idea that we’re superior to the rest of nature and that the laws of nature don’t apply to us.

There’s a quote I find particularly chilling from Frederick Winslow Taylor, the “father” of scientific management and one of the leaders of the so-called Efficiency Movement. He said, “In the past, man was first. In the future, the system will be first.”

That’s what we’ve come to. We think “the system” must go on, even though the system is one of converting the living to the dead. That’s what we call “production,” or “progress.” The system doesn’t recognize the value of a redwood tree until it’s turned into two-by- fours.

The operator of the Daiichi nuclear plant at Fukushima said that the world would continue to rely on nuclear power because people couldn’t live without electricity. But that’s wrong. People lived without electricity for thousands of years. What we can’t live without is a functioning planet. So it’s not the system that must go on. The system is what needs to be stopped. It’s the planet that must go on.

Derrick Jensen


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