The Forum program at the Museum of Science works hard to engage the public in conversations around questions that lie at the intersection of science, technology and society. One recent forum focused on biodiversity, which the museum is also spending a lot of time on by taking part in an international collaboration, called World Wide Views on Biodiversity, that engaged 3,000 citizens from 25 countries to raise public awareness on biodiversity and include the public in global policymaking. We recently caught up with David Sittenfeld, (above) manager of the Forum program at the Museum of Science who is giving a talk on the Museum's role in the global project - and is part of a group releasing a report about it - this week in D.C. Here is an edited version of questions and answers.
We hear a lot about biodiversity – what is it and why does it matter?
Biodiversity, or biological diversity, is the extraordinary variety of all living things. It includes plants, animals, and microorganisms, where they live (ecosystems such as lakes, forests, mountains, wetlands or deserts), and the genes that make each individual and species unique. Conservation biologists tell us that living things depend on this diversity to function in ecosystems. Genetic variability provides support for all organisms, making ecosystems resilient to disease and balancing competing forces. As humans, we rely on these interconnected relationships for necessities such as food, clean water and air, shelter, and medicine.
Where, or what, are the most serious threats to biodiversity?
Unfortunately, the greatest threats to biodiversity come from human activities, such as our demand for food, water, industrial materials, land and energy. Scientists are assessing the loss of species worldwide as a result of factors such as loss of natural habitat, overfishing, pollution, impacts from invasive species, and climate change. Major threats to biodiversity include deforestation and the loss of coral reefs, as forests and coral reefs are considered to be biodiversity “hotspots,” or places with high amounts of biodiversity. Recent studies have shown about a 50% decline n the Great Barrier Reef off Australia in the last three decades where enormous numbers of species live, and coral loss is happening even more quickly in the Caribbean.
How are extinctions today different from those in the long ago past?
Because scientists primarily investigate extinctions long ago through the fossil record, it is more difficult to establish causes of past extinctions. Scientists generally attribute these past extinctions to global shifts in climate or biogeochemical cycles, which took place over relatively long time scales and all over the globe. Changes in biodiversity because of human activities have been more rapid in the past 50 years than at any time in human history. Every day species’ extinctions are continuing at up to 1,000 times or more the natural rate.
What are ways to solve that threat?
Members of the United Nations are actively creating effective policies such as the establishment of marine protected areas, which show promise in preserving crucial ocean biodiversity hotspots. But more work needs to be done at the policy level, such as managing products from forests sustainably. Consumers and citizens can also help address the threats to biodiversity by purchasing sustainably managed products.
How are you involved in trying to address threats to Earth’s diversity?
The Museum of Science was part of a global deliberation on biodiversity policy that provided public input from ordinary citizens from 25 countries to the United Nations’ Convention on Biological Diversity in October.
Over 3,000 people around the world learned about biodiversity, discussed policy questions, and made recommendations. Although the results differed somewhat among different countries, participants broadly agreed that: efforts should be made to protect natural areas around the world; incentives and subsidies leading to overfishing should be phased out; and all countries should pay for protecting biodiversity in developing nations.
What struck me in particular was that before this global event, 30% of the participants said they knew nothing or very little about biodiversity, but afterwards, 97% said they were very concerned about the global decline.
What can a member of the public do to help preserve biodiversity?
We can all help scientists assess biodiversity through citizen science projects, such as the Museum of Science’s Firefly Watch or the many projects at scistar. People can also search for organisms in a neighborhood park, a freshwater marsh or an urban area, and see what other people have located as well, through biodiversity quests created with the Encylopedia of Life. To learn about where products we use and consume come from, visit MIT’s Sourcemap, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch.
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