There’s been a lot of buzz in the past week or so about the importance of biodiversity to human health. The excitement began with a study, led by Associate Professor Felicia Keesing, an ecologist at Bard College in Annandale, New York, which shows that humans are more vulnerable to infectious diseases following biodiversity loss. The research has been cited in leading news websites as well as popular science websites. (See list below.)
For biodiversity professionals, it’s not really news that human health and biodiversity are correlated. And, of course, we know that there are ethical and aesthetic reasons for conserving biodiversity.
It’s encouraging to see biodiversity get the coverage, but what seems to have lit the media fuse is the study’s focus on physical health. Yes, that’s important, but we already have cures for many of the diseases mentioned in the articles, such as Lyme Disease. So if push comes to shove, we could cope with the effects of biodiversity loss on human physical health. What we don’t have is ready cures for the impacts of biodiversity loss on mental health.
When ecosystems collapse and lose the ability to support charismatic creatures such as lions, tigers, rhinos and elephants, what is the effect on the psyche of humanity? When you go for a walk and there are no butterflies flitting among flowers and no birds singing in trees, what can fill the void?
E O Wilson in his book Biophilia asserts that there is “an instinctive bond between human beings and other living systems.” (See Wikipedia article.) So when living systems breaks down, what happens to the bond? When bonds between mother and child or lovers are broken, we feel indescribable pangs of loss. Does the same happen with loss of biodiversity? Children who have opportunities to encounter nature are healthier and happier than those with fewer opportunities.(1) What of the mental health of children growing up in a world where such opportunities are diminished and atrophied because of the loss of species?
Media attention on the connection between physical health and biodiversity is very welcome, and much needed. But let’s not forget that each one of us is a duality of mind and body. So we must not ignore the benefit of biodiversity to our mental health, nor the consequences of its loss.
List of websites that have cited Keesing’s biodiversity and human health study:
- Voice of America: Human Health Depends on Biodiversity
- New York Times: As Biodiversity Declines, Disease Flourishes
- Business Week: Species Extinctions May Spell Trouble for Human Health
- NPR: Declining Biodiversity Speeds Spreading Of Disease
- Guardian: Dwindling biodiversity raises disease risk in humans, study finds
- Scientific American: Humans are more at risk from diseases as biodiversity disappears
- New Scientist: Losing species makes ecosystems sick
1. Resurrecting Free Play in Young Children: Looking Beyond Fitness and Fatness to Attention, Affiliation, and Affect. Hillary L. Burdette, MD, MS; Robert C. Whitaker, MD, MPH ARCH PEDIATR ADOLESC MED/VOL 159, JAN 2005. http://www.childrenandnature.org/uploads/Burdette_LookingBeyond.pdf