Step out onto the Planet. Draw a circle a hundred feet round. Inside the circle are 300 things nobody understands, and, maybe nobody’s ever really seen. How many can you find?
—Lew WelchLew Welch had a good point. Though even on this scale he vastly underestimated the diversity of life. After all, a single spoonful of soil harbours upwards of 1 billion little understood things! Draw a circle a hundred feet round, and you will have encompassed many times more. Now try to think globally.
Our best approximation of global biodiversity ranges dramatically: between ten and 100 million species. To date, with it declining at an estimated rate of 140,000 species a year, it is a sobering realization that only about 1.4 million species are currently known to science and 99.9% of all life is completely invisible to our eyes.
How to put this global issue into perspective remains one of the more perplexing problems of our times. And while the problem has many dimensions, it remains perhaps foremost an issue of perception.
It is estimated that the human eye generates more than 10 million bits of data per second, yet of this our brain only processes about 40, bringing a vanishingly small fraction of our visual experience to light in any given moment. Never mind all the distractions of modern technological society! Vying for attention, the small fraction of life visible to humans must compete against all the stimuli of our affairs to find an opening in an already highly fragmented state of consciousness.
To make matters worse, humans are for the most part only capable of recognizing what they already know—and unfortunately for the majority of visible life, many insects, mushrooms, lichens and plants often fade into the background. For anything to be consciously recognized, let alone cared for, a certain amount of attention is necessary. Yet research has shown that attention first relies upon the experience whereby the observed becomes meaningful.
It might seem like a straightforward matter of environmental education, then, given that awareness must begin with knowledge before recognition can happen. Knowledge, however, can come across as all too abstract in the way of statistics and facts. For knowledge to become meaningful, it needs to find a place in one’s personal life story and immediate experience.
Getting back to the issue of global biodiversity loss—given the limits of ordinary human perception, and the bewildering scope of the issue, how can we place it all into perspective?
It all begins, I think, with a sense of place. Even while global and regional policies are being implemented to prevent its loss, awareness for this issue must begin with what’s local to one’s experience, both perceptually and geographically.
Especially here on Galiano Island: lying in the midst of the ecologically unique Georgia Basin—nowadays embraced as the Salish Sea—our island’s forests are considered imperilled, both provincially and globally. With around 80 per cent of the Coastal Douglas-fir (CDF) bioregion lying within private land, the better part of the region’s biodiversity has been entrusted to our hands.
No small responsibility! Our region has the highest density of species-at-risk in the province. By learning to appreciate the diversity of life that occurs locally, we can play a meaningful role protecting our home: a place considered BC’s highest priority for conservation.
Appreciating biodiversity in the context of place moreover requires a sensitivity to perspective––not just one perspective, but a diversity of perspectives. Long before conservation ever became a government priority, these islands had been stewarded by indigenous peoples, who have, since time immemorial, survived by observing the ecological cycles of the seasonal round. Deeply rooted in a sense of place, the knowledge of First Nations can open eyes to many overlooked aspects of the natural world.
Likewise a matter of perspective: citizen science is becoming increasingly important as a means of cataloguing biodiversity and obtaining the massive amounts of data necessary to understand complex environmental issues. As David Suzuki writes: “Science relies on observation. As more people examine natural phenomena and record and share information, we gain better understanding of the world. An increasing number of scientific inquiries now depend on contributions from ordinary people to help them answer important questions.”
Where multiple perspectives intersect in a concern for place, what arises, of course, is community. Human beings are a social species that derive great satisfaction and meaning from working together to attain a common goal. The Galiano Naturalists, who host the annual Christmas bird count, are a great example of this kind of community, having tracked the coming and going of birds for over twenty years.
In places all around the world, people are gathering, sharing their knowledge and writing down lists of species. Since the 80s environmentalists have collaborated with indigenous groups of Columbia to save the Amazon, and in Borneo biodiversity assessment likewise has become a multicultural exercise. At worst these practices have resulted in bio-piracy, yet at best have strengthened purposeful alliances. They have become, as Anna Tsing writes, “a self-conscious project of placing a local niche within a global imagining. The lists acknowledge and acclaim global biodiversity by conserving a local space within it.”
For many communities, preparing these lists has become a deeply meaningful practice. And it is no wonder: for such communication is arguably an evolutionary norm. Not only is the “diversity of life the cradle and greatest natural heritage of the human species,” as E.O. Wilson puts it; in many places knowledge of plants and animals as food and medicine remains vital. Indeed the survival of humanity has long depended on these forms of social cooperation in place. Despite the limits of human perception, as meaning gathers and attention becomes honed, today global biodiversity research benefits enormously from the localized efforts of organized individuals.
Worldwide such communities form a network that, interconnected like the mycelium that links the roots of trees, share crucial information concerning the world’s biodiversity. Through the power of the internet, every individual potentially forms a node in this network, capable of increasing global awareness for the world’s ecosystems.
It is an irony of our day that the thing which distracts so many people from the natural world has become one of the most effective ways to learn about it. By mapping onto localized networks and connecting them to the world, technology has become a powerful means of placing biodiversity into perspective.