Sustaining Life: How Human Health Depends on Biodiversity

Sustaining Life: How Human Health Depends on Biodiversity

Sustaining Life: How Human Health Depends on Biodiversity

Sustaining Life: How Human Health Depends on Biodiversity


The Earth's biodiversity-the rich variety of life on our planet-is disappearing at an alarming rate. And while many books have focused on the expected ecological consequences, or on the aesthetic, ethical, sociological, or economic dimensions of this loss,Sustaining Lifeis the first book to examine the full range of potential threats that diminishing biodiversity poses to human health.

Edited and written by Harvard Medical School physicians Eric Chivian and Aaron Bernstein, along with more than 100 leading scientists who contributed to writing and reviewing the book,Sustaining Lifepresents a comprehensive--and sobering--view of how human medicines, biomedical research, the emergence and spread of infectious diseases, and the production of food, both on land and in the oceans, depend on biodiversity. The book's ten chapters cover everything from what biodiversity is and how human activity threatens it to how we as individuals can help conserve the world's richly varied biota. Seven groups of organisms, some of the most endangered on Earth, provide detailed case studies to illustrate the contributions they have already made to human medicine, and those they are expected to make if we do not drive them to extinction. Drawing on the latest research, but written in language a general reader can easily follow,Sustaining Lifeargues that we can no longer see ourselves as separate from the natural world, nor assume that we will not be harmed by its alteration. Our health, as the authors so vividly show, depends on the health of other species and on the vitality of natural ecosystems.

With a foreword by E.O. Wilson and a prologue by Kofi Annan, and more than 200 poignant color illustrations,Sustaining Lifecontributes essential perspective to the debate over how humans affect biodiversity and a compelling demonstration of the human health costs. It is the winner of the Gerald L. Young Book Award in Human Ecology Best Sci-Tech Books of 2008 for Biology by Gregg Sapp of Library Journal


Edward O. Wilson once said about ants, “We need them tosurvive, 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. This fundamental truth, however, is largely lost to many of us. Rather, we humans generally act as if we were totally independent of Nature, as if we could do without most of its creatures and the life-giving services they provide, as if the natural world were designed to be an infinite source of products and services for our use alone and an infinite sink for our wastes.

During the past fifty years or so, for example, our actions have resulted in the loss of roughly one-fifth of Earth’s topsoil, one-fifth of its land suitable for agriculture, almost 90 percent of its large commercial marine fisheries, and one-third of its forests, while we now need these resources more than ever, as our population has almost tripled during this period of time, increasing from 2.5 to more than 6.5 billion. We have dumped millions of tons of chemicals onto soils and into fresh water, the oceans, and the air, while knowing very little about the effects these chemicals have on other species or, in fact, on ourselves. We have changed the composition of the atmosphere, thinning the ozone layer that filters out harmful ultraviolet radiation, toxic to all living things on land and in surface waters, and increasing the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide to levels not present on Earth for more than 600,000 years. These carbon dioxide emissions, caused mainly by our burning fossil fuels, are unleashing a warming of Earth’s surface and of the oceans and a change in the climate that will increasingly threaten our health and the survival of other species worldwide. And we are now consuming or wasting or diverting almost half of all the net biological production on land, which ultimately derives from photosynthesis, and more than half of the planet’s renewable fresh water.

We are so damaging the habitats in which other species live that we are driving them to extinction, the only truly irreversible consequence of our environmental assaults, at a rate that is hundreds to even thousands of times greater than natural background levels. As a result, some biologists have concluded that we have entered what they are calling “the sixth great extinction event,” the fifth having occurred sixty-five million years ago when dinosaurs and many other organisms were wiped out. That event was most likely the result of a giant asteroid striking Earth; this one we are causing.

Most disturbing of all, as a result of all of these actions taken together, we are disrupting what are called “ecosystem services,” that is, the various ways that organisms, and the sum total of their interactions with each other and with the environments in which they live, function to keep all life on this planet, including human life, alive.

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