Friday, May 22, 2015

Can Biodiversity and Development Ever Get Along?

It’s the 14th celebration of the International Day of Biological Diversity, with the theme of sustainable development. I feel like these ‘days’ often focus on the developing world, the hotspots of biodiversity in the tropics, how we can ensure that ‘nature’ remains intact as incomes grows and standards of living improve. But the past week has caused me to think much more about biodiversity and America’s not-so-sustainable development.
Wheat fields of central Montana
As you know from my last post, I spent the better part of Saturday through Tuesday on cross-country trains. For miles on Monday afternoon we passed immense monoculture of wheat. The park service docents who hopped onboard at the border of Montana pointed out the occasional pronghorn or fox that dotted the landscape (though I was hard-pressed to see where they might make their permanent residence). Yet this vast swath of grain at one point was prairie grassland, an often underappreciated and misunderstood biome. It was home to bighorn sheep, wolves, grizzly bears, and elk up until the early 20th century. According to The Nature Conservancy, over the last 25 years 25 million acres of grassland has been lost and conversion to cropland stands as its greatest threat. As one docent informed, even up until the drought (AKA Dust Bowl) in the 1920/30’s, homesteaders maintained a relatively diverse holding of different wheat varieties, hay and fodder fields (for their draft animals, of course), and home gardens. After water scarcity downsized the pool of farmers, the State’s wheat market consolidated to a ‘family-owned’ corporate system that now dominates most agricultural production in the US.
Early 20th c. logging around Lake Sammamish
So there’s your agricultural example of unsustainable and anti-biodiversity development. But the harder hitting case for me rests much closer to home, and involves Washington ecosystems, including its forests, which house a sizable array of plants and animals. Just a little background – I grew up in a suburban plateau outside Seattle, on the cusp of rural Puget Sound and surrounded by floodplain farmland. The road running from Redmond to Issaquah (through the not yet founded city of Sammamish) looked like a page out of national park brochure when we first moved to the area 27 years ago (though the irony is the area was heavily logged in the late 19th century…). It has changed at a frightening pace in my lifetime; however that didn’t make the vision of rapid development from my bus window yesterday any less heart-rending. What were hillsides of evergreen ecosystems not more than five or ten years ago, have been reduced to an assortment of townhouses, big box franchises, and roads. This mode and rapidity of development embodies a lifestyle reliant on fossil fuels and focused on consumption, while insensitive to the long-standing culture and character of the area.
So while I applaud the United Nations’ attempts to tie together awareness on biodiversity and sustainable development, I mourn a lost opportunity to look more broadly at the challenges inherent in development. We need to really think long and hard about the tradeoffs between our current consumption patterns (particularly in the ‘developed’ world) and diversity - whether that's in ecosystems, flora and fauna and crop varieties, or even the types of transnational enterprises that seem to coincide with the process of development. 
Photo credits: (top) me! (bottom) Sammamish Heritage Society.

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