Sustainable development is a popular concept based on the assumption that we know enough to "manage" our natural resources in a way that will enable them to flourish indefinitely.
With so many people in the world and a steeply rising demand for consumer products, it's certainly an enticing idea. But do we really know enough to manage natural resources sustainably?
Well, if we owned a business like a bakery that we wanted to operate and pass on to our children and grandchildren, what would we need to know? I would think before we even got into the question of markets, prices, distribution, advertising, etc, we would need two basic things: an inventory of everything in the bakery and a blueprint showing the role of everything in the inventory. With those two critical pieces of information, we could proceed to market prices, costs, sales, and profit.
Unfortunately, when it comes to the natural world, where we find "resources" galore, too often potential profit is reason enough to begin exploiting them without regard to inventory or blueprint.
In British Columbia, nature abounds and we have embarked upon a radical program of exploiting resources we know little about. That's why forests and hundreds of salmon races have already disappeared, while abalone, rockfish, and geoducks are in catastrophic decline.
How much of an inventory of life forms do we really have? In Canada, a committee of distinguished scientists makes informed guesses about species that are in various stages of decline. The number is rising. This year, there are 415 listed compared with 404 last year. But even those lists have to be based on species that have been officially identified, given a taxonomic name, and sufficiently studied for us to know their numbers are changing.
So do we even know how many species there are? The only honest answer is no. More than half of all insects in the national collection in Ottawa have never been identified because we lack the personnel. (Collecting and identifying species, called systematics and taxonomy, is very low on the totem pole of glamor in biology.) I have seen estimates of the number of species on the planet that range from 2 million to 100 million — a 50-fold range!
In a gram of soil, there may be 1 billion individual single-celled organisms and millions more multicells. In that same soil sample, there may be 4,000 different species — almost all of them completely unknown to scientists.
Soil is the foundation upon which the rest of terrestrial life depends; the total weight of microorganisms underground exceeds the weight of all life above. Yet knowing almost nothing about its makeup, we deplete its organic content and alter it with chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
If we ignore soil microorganisms, how well do we know the animals and plants of the world? Remember that 70 percent of the planet is covered in water, an alien medium to us. Probably the best-known organisms are trees: They're big, they don't move, and we've got lots of uses for them. There are about 90,000 known species of trees and about 200,000 other species of plants.
But the kicker in this is that we now know a species isn't just the sum of all the individuals but their diverse genes as well. In other words, we may find the same species from valley to valley, but when genetic makeup is analyzed, there may be characteristic differences within the same species.
Those differences are crucial for the well being and resilience of a species over time. We know very little about such intraspecies variability (called genetic polymorphism), although new molecular tools for DNA analysis hold out the exciting potential to gather those data if we make the commitment of time and resources. Right now, however, we're still selling bread without knowing what's in the bakery.
Written by: David Sezuki
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