Biodiversity is, in a nutshell, all life on Earth. It’s all the animal and plant species, how they coexist within our ecosystems, and the benefits we get from it all. For example, rivers and streams deliver flowing water; insects pollinate crops; livestock graze on grass; we eat fish from the ocean. Weather patterns and global warming are swayed by nature as well.
You can enjoy biodiversity’s perks by simply taking a walk in a park, going on a stroll through the woods, or spending an afternoon at the beach.
Any time spent in nature can build your strength, amp up your immune system, and sharpen your mental skills, says biologist Rebecca Shaw, PhD, chief scientist and senior vice president of the World Wildlife Fund. “If you have an opportunity to experience Earth’s ecosystems — forests, rivers, oceans, local or national parks, your backyard — there are real scientific benefits for your own health.”
Biodiversity’s Role in Human Health
Biodiversity plays a key role in your health. The main ways are through medication, nature therapy, and weather, says John La Puma, MD, of Santa Barbara, CA. He’s co-founder of the ChefMD brand and author of several books about nutrition, cooking, and fitness.
“There are between 50,000 and 70,000 known medicinal and aromatic plants used by humans for medicine or other purposes,” he says. So, “When we lose plant species, we lose potential cures.”
Greater biodiversity offers more chances for nature therapy, which you might also hear called ecotherapy or ecomedicine. It’s a practice that draws on the beauty and helpful effects of nature to ease stress and restore your mental and physical health.
“Many people have nature deficit disorder — a social term for a clinical condition that contributes to obesity, mental illness and myopia, and other chronic illnesses,” La Puma says. “Spending time in nature can also help maintain and promote personal medical wellness, spirituality, and mental well-being, including treatments for generalized anxiety and depression … .”
Global Warming and Weather Changes
Naysayers often compare our current, sometimes extreme climate events with, for example, ice ages of the past. Those historic major weather changes were caused by small changes in how the Earth orbits the sun.
“They’re two very different things,” Shaw says. Scientists say climate change, and warming of the oceans, result largely from the greenhouse effect.
“Greenhouse” gases trap heat in the Earth’s atmosphere, like greenhouses we build to grow, say, tropical plants. These gases include carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and fluorinated gases. Their concentrations have increased in the atmosphere largely as the result of burning of fossil fuels, along with agricultural and industrial processes.
Air pollution, which mainly comes from energy use and production, includes greenhouse gases and CO2. It’s a major threat to human health. Lung and heart diseases cause 5 million deaths a year, and that number is rising, La Puma says. They’re the fourth leading cause of death, after high blood pressure, smoking, and high blood sugar, he says.
“You can take a gas sample and look at the form of CO2 (carbon dioxide) and determine it’s CO2” from gases created by human or natural processes, Shaw says. “While the broad Earth changes occurred over hundreds of thousands of years, the global warming we’re experiencing has happened over 150 years, all created by mankind and highly destructive.”
Those rising temperatures pose a threat to the animals and plants that live in a given area. They can lead to drought, changes to the water supply, and the loss of native species of plants that serve as food. Further, as the climate of an area changes, new species that couldn’t survive in an area before move in and compete with the original residents for survival.
Other Threats to Biodiversity
“The most ominous threat to biodiversity is human activity,” La Puma says. “As a species, we’ve assumed the Earth is something to exploit, rather than something with which to coexist and honor. People overfish oceans, clear forests, pollute water sources, cause climate crises, and intensify conventional commercial agriculture.”
A key player in biodiversity is healthy soil, and it’s going away quickly. We’ve lost half the Earth’s topsoil — the organic, nutrient-dense layer where plants take root — in the past 150 years, La Puma says. This has affected species that rely on plants that grow in the soil, like honeybees and other pollinators (tiny insects and animals that carry pollen from plant to plant), and plants that grow in that soil. Some species have lost their habitat. Chemicals used to control pests can poison the water and injure other, helpful species, including plants, animals, insects, and microbes.
If you study creatures like butterflies and birds, you’ll notice the changes in their habits and the ranges they travel, Shaw says. Plants flower at different times than before. Meanwhile, weather patterns have grown more intense, leading to events such as catastrophic wildfires, mass flooding, hotter summers, and rising sea levels.
These events not only ravage landscapes and habitats, they take away people’s livelihoods, too. “We’re beginning to see natural resource battles between people and wildlife, who often rely on the same valuable sources, such as water and food,” Shaw says.
What You Can Do, Right Now
It isn’t too late to make a difference in your environment, and your health. La Puma suggests simple yet solid ways to get back to nature:
Practice everyday awe. “Appreciate the beauty of a flower, really listen to birdsong, take care of a houseplant at least 5 minutes daily, doing only that,” La Puma says. “Experiencing nature, even for this quickie nature dose, can bring you closer to wanting to preserve and protect it, and improve both mood and self-esteem.”
Upgrade your food choices. Eat local and organic. “Try to grow some of your own plants and food — even herbs, many of which (like rosemary) are bulletproof.” Buy locally from farmers, and support farms that promote regenerative agriculture and plant many different types of crops, even on a small scale.
Garden. Whether it’s food or flowers, grow native plants to provide pollen and nectar for pollinators. “Gardening organically and using native plants are both backyard ways to improve your own health and that of the planet,” La Puma says. Growing your food this way packs more nutrition and improves the quality of the topsoil, he says. “Increasing biodiversity, even in your own backyard, improves soil resilience as well as resistance to insects.”
Exercise outdoors. “The immunity, socialization, and well-being benefits are greater, and you feel less tired and more refreshed than exercising inside,” La Puma says.