Why is the Environment so Important?



Grinnell Glacier

Only a tiny fraction of pristine wilderness remains in the U.S. and other parts of the world, yet, politicians and corporations continue to demand 3% here and 2% there and over the course of just a few decades the wilderness is lost—an area that took nature millions of years to create...




Our life-support system's health is maintained by all the species that make-up the biosphere—from the smallest to the largest (our biodiversity). The survival of all these species are interconnected and dependent on each other. Bacteria and insects break down organic material to produce soil and nutrients so plants can grow. Plants provide oxygen and food for animals and many other benefits. Bees, other insects, and animals pollinate the plants so they can reproduce and keep the cycle going. They also maintain the health of plants and spread their seeds. The actual processes that take place between species and the environment are extremely complex and vulnerable. If humanity causes the extinction of one species—it's really the extinction of many species and the decline of our life-support system for ourselves and future generations. God's gift must not be taken for granted—it must be cared for. If not, humanity will face the grim consequences of its actions.

Humanity has neglected to factor into the economic equation the tremendous benefits nature provides. Because the environment is our life-support system, it's impossible to truly estimate its value (it's priceless). However, economists and environmental scientists have estimated in dollars what it would cost us to accomplish the services nature provides. Using multiple databases, they estimate that nature provides $33 trillion dollars worth of services every year—that's nearly twice the annual Gross National Product or GNP of all the countries in the world combined.1 For example, forests prevent soil erosion, landslides, and flooding; maintain the purity of the air and water; affect local and global rainfall; temper climatic fluctuations; and promote watersheds and biodiversity. By retaining the proper moisture content within their foliage and soil, healthy forests prevent local fires from becoming widespread. Unfortunately, this moisture content is declining from over harvesting and fragmentation. Consequently, large-scale fires are becoming increasingly prevalent throughout the world. Other ecosystems like mangroves, wetlands, grasslands, shrubs, deserts, oceans, coral reefs, tundra-arctic regions, and so on provide similar and unique benefits.

Biodiversity provides problem-solving raw materials for shelter and useful products, creates medicines, and allows us to pollinate and maintain healthy crops from being infested with harmful insects and diseases (without the need or hazards of chemicals or genetic engineering, which kill beneficial insects, additional wildlife, and plants). Although tropical forests contain some of the highest concentration of biodiversity on the planet, we destructively log more than 10 million acres of these forests each year (that’s approximately the size of a football field every 4 seconds) and efforts to promote sustainable forestry are largely failing.2 Scientists agree that the best way to protect biodiversity is to protect and maintain habitat large enough to accommodate a healthy ecosystem—tolerating small fragmented habitats will not preserve ecosystems or their biodiversity.

Approximately 40% of all prescriptions in the U.S. are either based on or synthesized from natural compounds found in microorganisms, plants, and animals.3 The economic value provided by just plant-based anticancer drugs in the U.S. is over $250 billion annually.4 In addition to nature providing us with penicillin, aspirin, morphine, and steroids; the medicine Taxol, which fights breast and ovarian cancer, comes from the bark of the pacific yew tree; the foxglove plant provides the drug digitalis which boosts the pumping action of weak hearts; and the rosy periwinkle plant is used to fight Hodgkin’s disease and childhood leukemia. Other candidates providing promising medicines include deep-sea sponges, tropical cone snails, dogfish sharks, the bark of the Holarrhena tree (found in Asia and Africa), and the plant Chonemorpha macrophylla (located in the foothills of the Himalayas). A microbe found in the hot springs of Yellowstone National Park provided an enzyme for mass-producing DNA.5 Physician and biochemist Michael Zasloff, "There’s so much we don’t know about the natural world…And we’re destroying large parts of it before we even appreciate our ignorance."6

The National Geographic Society writes:

The fragile balance of plants and animals that share the Earth took millions of years to develop. Some life-forms have persisted in nearly their original state, surviving episodes of mass extinction. Some, like ourselves, are relative newcomers. The ones that have perished will not return. Neither will the thousands of species that are disappearing each year due in large part to such human influences as habitat destruction, introduction of invasive species, and overharvesting. If we continue reducing Earth’s biodiversity at this rate, the consequences will be profound. The web of life connects the smallest bacterium to the giant redwood and the whale. When we put that web in peril, we become agents of calamity.7 Furthermore, religions around the world have long understood that the beauty, diversity, and wonder of nature is humanity's physical link with God—encouraging us to develop a spiritual relationship with our Creator. The destruction of this link and our life-support system should enrage all of humanity—especially religious groups—stewards of God's creation.

People who believe exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist. —Kenneth Boulding

Slideshow of Clear-Cut Forests: Where is the Outrage?


© 2001-2003 by William C. Gladish. All Rights Reserved.
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1 Edward O. Wilson, The Future of Life (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002) p. 106.
2 Union of Concerned Scientists, "Our Latest Activities," 15 Sept. 1999, www.ucsusa.org/resources/res-home.
3 Union of Concerned Scientists, Discussion Guide-Keeping the Earth: Religious and Scientific Perspectives on the Environment (Cambridge, MA: Union of Concerned Scientists, 1996) p. 19.
4 National Geographic Society, "Millennium in Maps: Biodiversity," National Geographic Feb. 1999: Insert.
5 Virginia Morell, "The Variety of Life," National Geographic Feb. 1999: p. 17.
6 Joel L. Swerdlow, "Biodiversity: Taking Stock of Life," National Geographic Feb. 1999: p. 5.
7 National Geographic Society, "Millennium in Maps: Biodiversity."