The eminent Harvard biology professor Edward O. Wilson once said about ants, “We need them to survive, but they don’t need us at all.”
The same, in fact, could be said about countless other insects, bacteria, fungi, plankton, plants and other organisms. Yet, we humans often act as if we are totally independent of our environment, as if our driving thousands of other species to extinction, and disrupting the life-giving services they provide, will have no effect on us whatsoever.
The fundamental truth is that biodiversity matters profoundly to human health in almost every conceivable way. The roles that individual species, and the ecosystems they make up, play in providing food, fuel and unique medicinal compounds; air, water and soil purification services; and natural regulation of infectious disease, to name a few, are critical to our health and survival. The loss of species as a result of human activity and the degradation of ecosystems ongoing around the world lowers the quality of the planet’s natural resources and destabilizes the physical environment.
Because of the very high level of current extinctions, scientists say we have now entered the "sixth great extinction" event, the fifth having occurred sixty-five million years ago, when dinosaurs and many other organisms went extinct. That event resulted from natural causes, perhaps a giant asteroid striking the Earth; this one we are causing.
Little attempt has been made to utilize biodiversity to enhance public health, a neglect that produces the greatest burden for developing countries, where 80 percent of humanity lives and most health crises erupt.
Explore Topics Related to This Program
- Ecosystem Services: Humanity often takes these services, offered free of charge, for granted.
- Biodiversity and Food Production: Biodiversity ensures against treats to crops from pests, diseases, and climate change.
- Biodiversity and Infectious Diseases: Ecosystem disruption has major impacts on the spread of human infectious diseases.
- Medicines From Nature: Nature has been providing medicines to treat our diseases for many thousands of years.
- Climate Change and Biodiversity Loss: By 2050, climate change alone is expected to threaten 25% or more of all species.
- Threats to Biodiversity and Ecosystems: The main factor currently driving biodiversity loss is habitat destruction.
- Biodiversity and Medical Research: Medical research has always relied on other species to help us understand and treat disease.
About This Program
The Center's Biodiversity and Human Health Program informed policymakers and educated the public about the importance of preserving biodiversity through the lens of human health. The Center accomplished this by demonstrating the roles that individual species, and the ecosystems they make up, play in providing food, fuel and unique medicinal compounds; air, water and soil purification services; the breakdown of dead organisms and recycling of nutrients in soils and the oceans; and the natural regulation of infectious diseases, to name a few.
Former Program Director Eric Chivian, along with Aaron Bernstein, are co-editors and lead authors of the most comprehensive review available about the relationship of human health to biodiversity, the Oxford University Press book Sustaining Life: How Our Health Depends on Biodiversity. Published in 2008, the book, now in its fourth printing, has been adopted as a text in large numbers of high schools and universities in many countries, and is slated to appear in Chinese, Japanese, Spanish and Arabic editions.
Drs. Chivian and Bernstein continue to lecture all over the world on the importance of biodiversity to human health, from the EPA in China, to the US National Institutes of Health, to the Library of Alexandria in Egypt.
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