At (H)our Hands: Humans and Biodiversity Loss

19 May 2021 At (H)our Hands: Humans and Biodiversity Loss

Image designed by Yeji Cho ’24

Species are going extinct at an ever-accelerating rate. What does “biodiversity” mean, why does it matter, and how can we best protect it?

First Aired: May 19, 2021 


[ticking clock]

Sydney Kim: I didn’t learn what “biodiversity” meant until recently. I’ve always loved nature; I love to be outside. As a child, I learned to recognize bird songs, tree species, and bugs. I would build small houses out of twigs and leaves. 

[ticking and speech gradually speed up]

Sydney: I caught fireflies in my backyard and collected seashells as I walked along the shoreline. But I never thought of any of this as biodiversity. It was just the world around me. I took it for granted.

[ticking and speech are twice as fast]

Sydney: But the reality is that species are going extinct more quickly than ever before––some before we can even identify them. As biodiversity loss continues to accelerate, we will feel the consequences more and more in our daily lives. 

[ticking and speech are almost three times as fast]

Sydney: Biodiversity loss will increase the severity and frequency of natural disasters, decrease ecosystem resilience, increase the chances of zoonotic diseases, impact food and water security, raise the temperature of the planet--

[ticking and speech stop]

Sydney: [normal speed] You’re probably wondering why I’m speaking so quickly. What happened was that my speech rate accelerated to mirror the acceleration of species extinction. But the problem is worse than I made it sound. If I had sped up my voice to correspond to the actual acceleration of biodiversity loss, it would have sounded something like this:

[ticking resumes]

Sydney: I didn’t learn what “biodiversity” meant until recently. I’ve always loved nature; I love to be outside. As a child, I learned to recognize bird songs, tree species, and bugs. I would build small houses out of twigs and leaves. I caught fireflies in my backyard and collected seashells as I walked along the shoreline. But I never thought of any of this as biodiversity. 

[ticking and speech are almost three times as fast]

It was just the world around me. I took it for granted.

[speech becomes unintelligible]

Sydney: I’m Sydney

Ozzie Martinez: I’m Ozzie.

Max Burns: And I’m Max. When it comes to biodiversity loss, this is the kind of thing we’ve been hearing our entire lives. And we know how it makes us feel. It makes us feel scared, doomed, even.  

Ozzie: Yeah, because biodiversity loss is about a lot more than plants and animals dying. It’s about us, too. For example, we’re losing biodiversity in wetlands and in coral reefs right now. As those ecosystems get weaker, they can’t buffer the wind and waves as well, so our towns and cities have to face stronger and more frequent hurricanes and storms. Things like that are impacting us now, and it’ll only keep getting worse unless we do something about it. So our radio class, comprised of 15 MIT students, went out and collected stories from people all around us to see how they felt about biodiversity loss.

Max: And we found a ton of different perspectives, all intermingled with emotion and some really fascinating stories. And that brought us to the question-- what even is biodiversity?

Ozzie: Yeah, that is the question, though. What is biodiversity? 

Max: Yeah, how do you nail it down? There’s a lot more to it than just the number of animals that are in an ecosystem.

Ozzie: Yeah, exactly. It’s not just-- I guess if you take “biodiversity” very strictly, the combination of the two parts of the word, “diversity of life.” What does that even mean?

Max: Right. Where does that get us?

Ozzie: Yeah, it’s like-- 

[“user joining call” notification]

Ozzie: Oh, you left the class open? 

Max: Oh, sorry. I meant to-- I think I forgot to leave. 

Ozzie: Looks like someone’s connecting. 

Max: Oh, it’s Yeji!

Ozzie: Oh, hey Yeji!

Max: Hi Yeji!

Yeji Cho: Hi! Are you guys busy? 

Ozzie: Hmm, yeah.

Max: Kinda in the middle of something.

Ozzie: But honestly, it’s kinda good you’re here now, though, because we’ve been having some trouble, if you’d like to help.

Yeji: Oh, yeah! What do you need help with?

Ozzie: So we were trying to define “biodiversity,” but we’re kinda stuck. We don’t know where to go. 

Max: So how would you define it?

Yeji: Oh, okay. Well, that’s kind of a hard question. I guess where I would start is that there’s diversity-- there’s variability within the life, and that includes “between species” or “within a species” or whatever. The concept of it is that there’s a ton of variability within the life that is present.

Ozzie: You say it like “life,” though, but what do you mean by “life”?

Yeji: The reason that it’s life is because it’s literally all living organisms.

Max: Like moss?

Yeji: Yes, exactly. We’re all about moss diversity here!

Ozzie: I didn’t even know there were different types of moss until recently.

Max: I thought it was just moss, y’know?

Yeji: That’s what you need to learn, is that there’s lots of different kinds of moss.

Max: Different kinds of moss.

Ozzie: Different kinds of folks, different kinds of moss. I dunno, it seems kinda weird, though. You can’t really see a lot of this stuff. I know bacteria or things like that, really small organisms that you can’t really see are part of biodiversity. 

Max: Or like “do they matter that much?”

Ozzie: Exactly! It’s like, I dunno, you have huge organisms like hawks or something like that.

Max: Like a hawk versus a bison.

Ozzie: Yeah, exactly, or like a hawk versus a bacteria. Why would it ever matter that bacteria are disappearing or that things aren’t--

Max: Right.

Ozzie: --are changing, you know?

Yeji: I think that’s a fair point. I think that with that, my answer is that you’re framing what is important in an ecosystem from the way that you would measure, for example, human importance in an ecosystem. But the environment, the ecosystem, doesn’t measure impact by visibility or by the number of actions that they’re taking. 

Max: It’s like in an office or something, where every person -- maybe some people would say “oh, the boss, they’re the most important,” but if you didn’t have any of those people, if it’s a sales office, if you didn’t have the sales people, it wouldn’t function. Or the secretary, it wouldn’t function, like the person who answers the phones is important, you know? 

Yeji: Alternatively, you think that all of the people in that office are the only important things, right? But what if that office, one day, just had no more paper clips. Zero paper clips. All the people are still there; everything else in that office is still there, but you have no more paper clips. How are you going to function in that office, you know?

Max: That’s actually a good point. 

Ozzie: Oh my God.

Max: Even objects. The little things you don’t notice.

Ozzie: Even the paper clips.

Max: Even the paper clips.

Yeji: Because let’s say that all the paper clips are gone and you’re using only staplers, right? At some point, you’re going to need to distribute documents that needed to be held together and then separated. They’re all gonna be stapled. What are you gonna do then, rip them apart? That’s ruining your ecosystem.

Max: That’s actually kinda a good comparison, because other things can fill the niche, but not as well.

Ozzie: Yeah, and that’s a good point. I think that’s really helped-- at least, me. Thanks, Yeji.

Max: Yeah, thanks, Yeji!

Yeji: No problem! Bye, see you guys later! 

Max and Ozzie: See ya!

[“user left call” notification]
Max: I really like her perspective on this, and I think it’s really interesting because when we talked to our instructor, Ari Epstein, about this, he framed this in a very different way.

Ari Epstein: Thinking of biodiversity in terms of interactions rather than individuals, I think, is really rich. One way I like to think of it is if you’re counting species or you’re counting animals, or doing anything like that, you’re talking about nouns, but if you’re looking at the web of interactions among organisms, you’re really looking at verbs. “Which eats what?” “What attacks what?” It feels more dynamic to me, and it feels more representative of a living thing. I don’t think of a living thing as being a bunch of nouns stuck together; I think of a living thing as being a bunch of processes happening. Then you’re really seeing the life of the system, not just the objects in them.

Max: And I think this is an excellent way to define it, as a flow of processes.

Ozzie: Yeah, I never really thought about it that way. And it’s a system instead of just the things in it. It’s about the interactions.

Max: It’s everything you don’t see. There’s so much going on there that it’s hard for us to comprehend. There’s so many intermingling links between all of the pieces of the system, it’s really fascinating. That also means that it’s somewhat sensitive. If you take out links from that, then it’s not ideal.

Ozzie: And what would that affect? 

Max: Right. It could have consequences that we wouldn’t be able to predict.

[“user joining call” notification]

Max: Oh!

Ozzie: Someone’s joining again.

Max: Oh, sorry, I forgot to leave the room, I think.

Ozzie: All good, man. Who is it?

MAx: Oh, it’s Yeji!

Max and Ozzie: Hi Yeji!

Yeji: Hi! Are you guys still talking about biodiversity? 

Ozzie: Yeah, kind of. We kind of moved a little bit away from that, though. 

Max: We’ve kinda moved on to how people experience biodiversity.

Yeji: You know, that actually reminds me, have I told you guys the story about the gobies?

Max: I don’t think so? What gobies?

Yeji: There was an aquarium that I volunteered at in high school. And for a while, what I would do on Saturday mornings -- when I come in really early -- is that I would feed the tank of tidewater gobies. And it was this really sad tank of ten dying fish, and they were sick. They were visibly sick. 

The reason they were there is because the aquarium and a couple universities and stuff had a restoration project going where they were each trying to build up this population of tidewater gobies so that they could restore it. And it was very niche, it was like the “southern tidewater goby” or something. They only lived in a very few number of spots. And the idea was that you would increase the population, release them back in the wild, restore them, because they were literally going extinct. 

And I feel like the tanks in the other universities had already died, and this was the last tank. It was like ten fish and they were dying. And for several months, every week, I would come in. I would feed these fish. They wouldn’t eat, because they were dying. I watched them die off. Week after week, I watched there be less fish in that tank, and then the last week I come in and there’s one fish left, and it’s gone. And the little jar we would get the food for these fish from? That little jar had been taken out of the fridge because they didn’t need it anymore. Because all the fish were dead. 

So for me, that was the most visible example of biodiversity loss, because I literally watched some of the last examples of that subspecies of fish or whatever die off. And die off in a manmade environment, too. I watched them die off in a fish tank in the corner of the aquarium. 

Ozzie: It’s very visceral, you know. You’re able to see it right in front of your eyes. It’s not something as abstract as “so and so many animals we’re losing globally” or you know, maybe in different regions. But you’re literally seeing a species, a population, just die out.

Max: They're not just numbers anymore.

Ozzie: Yeah.

Max: The fact that you could touch those fish a week ago, and then their species is gone forever.

Ozzie: Exactly, and it’s not just in some places that only some people experience. I think Elise Chambers, one of our mentors, is a great example of this occurring in a place that she grew up in.

Elise Chambers: There was a little conservation area, maybe [INAUDIBLE] a block and a half away from my house. And we used to bike ride there all the time. We called it the “frog pond” growing up, because there was this little tiny pond at the base of this giant hill, and there used to be frogs in that pond. So we called it the “frog pond,” like “we’re gonna go ride our bikes over to the frog pond,” and I remember the last summer that there were frogs in that frog pond. That area is completely dry now, there is no water in it at all. [laughs] I don’t even know if people still call it the frog pond. Probably not, because you know, kids make up names for everything. But I think those kinds of things stood out to me when I was growing up.

Max: We’re seeing these consequences in our daily lives, even. Places that they went to as kids, like that frog pond is gone now, and how many frog ponds are there across the nation, or across the world?

Ozzie: How many are we losing?

Max: How many are we losing? Right now?

Ozzie: Exactly, and it’s not just frog ponds, it’s everything else.

Max: Ask anybody and they’ll tell you a story about that. It’s terrifying. 

Ozzie: Yeah, the problem might be too big for one person to fix. However, that shouldn’t discourage you from working together with other people to try to fix the problem. 

Max: Right, I completely agree. And I think a great example of this-- we interviewed Dr. Emily Moberg, and she made this happen in her parents’ own backyard.

Emily Moberg: In high school, I started pestering them to basically let our yard go a little bit more wild, which they did, and they also planted a lot of native species, made sure that there’s little corridors throughout the yard of good underbrush and also lots of flowers for native insects to be able to use. And the amount of wildlife that we have seen in their yard is incredible. We started seeing praying mantises a couple years back that hadn’t been there previously, assumedly because there’s a lot of tasty insects for them to eat. There’s a fox that lives around; I have seen it with big birds in its mouth running across our back porch, so it clearly feels very much at home. Lots of woodpeckers, a couple of box turtles, one of which we think laid eggs somewhere, but dug a lot of false nests too, so we didn’t get to see any baby turtles.

Ozzie: Even though she, as an individual, did whatever she wanted in her backyard, it’s about taking that hope and taking those ideas that people have and making them into a way larger scale that will actually have a very direct impact on biodiversity loss as we see it.

Max: And what do you mean by “larger scale”?

Ozzie: By “larger scale,” I don’t mean, you know, making more gardens or doing the same thing but with more people. I mean more-- showing national leaders, local leaders that people do care about this and that they should be doing things that will bring change either nationally, globally, or locally, to help with the biodiversity crisis.

Max: No individual person can do this. This has to be a huge group effort. These systems are-- they’re huge.

Ozzie: Coming together as a way bigger group and coming in and really just continuing to have that hope and continuing to have that drive to try to fix biodiversity loss, you would see a greater impact globally.

Max: And when you’re confronted with a problem like this, where you have to rely on so many people working together to solve this, it can feel a little intimidating.

Ozzie: Yeah, it can be kinda hard to stay hopeful, but when we interviewed one of our mentors, Elise Chambers, she explained why she still has hope.

Elise: One of the things that gives me hope in the conversation about biodiversity and climate change and things like that is just how much your generation cares about it. Even if we aren’t able to figure out a way to move forward, the fact that there are young people pushing the conversation to happen at all is helpful. I mean, I think that’s been true of so many things that have changed, so many movements that have started; it’s been younger people wanting a better world and forcing the conversation to happen, especially among people who haven’t needed to have the conversation yet because it either wasn’t an issue for them or they’re used to the world that they live in now, or whatever the reason. So I think it gives me a lot of hope that there are so many young people who are just like “we need to talk about this, and we need to talk about it now.” 

Max: She has that hope because we can turn that caring into action. We can make change happen because we will be the ones determining the future of the world. 

Ozzie: And, you know, it’s not just people our age, but it’s also people that care. And it’s our responsibility to bring this issue forward to our leaders, so that they know that this is actually something they have to worry about and really try to push substantial change to occur. Remember the beginning of this piece, where Sydney’s voice sped up to mirror the acceleration of biodiversity loss? Well, if we all came together, if we all pushed to make this change happen, we could reverse that curve and slow down the ticking clock.

[ticking and speech start at over three times speed]

SYDNEY: Now, we’re losing biodiversity faster than ever before.  There are countless species we’ve lost and won’t be able to recover.  And today -- right now -- people are suffering from the consequences.  But it doesn’t have to continue on like this.

[sound slows to two times speed]

We’ve lost a lot of biodiversity, but there is still so much we can save. We can’t undo what has already happened, but we can move forward by driving change at a systemic level. 

[speech slows to normal speed]

And if we start now -- by raising awareness, pressuring companies and organizations to make their practices more sustainable, and advocating for policy that will protect species, ecosystems, and our future -- we can be the ones to stop the acceleration of biodiversity loss. 

[guitar music]

Max: The concept for this piece was developed and the sound was gathered by students in Terrascope Radio, a class at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, developed in collaboration with MIT’s program in comparative media studies. The music in this piece is from Blue Dot Sessions.

Ozzie: We would like to thank Terrascope director David McGee; Elise Chambers, who coordinates the Terrascope community; the Terrascope alumni mentors; and all of the people we spoke to in the creation of this piece.

Max: We’d also like to thank our Undergraduate Teaching Fellows, Amena Khatun and Felix Li, for their guidance and for helping this class run smoothly in a virtual world. And, of course, we’d like to thank our instructor, Ari Epstein.  

Ozzie: We are Terrascope Radio 2021: Ozzie Martinez...

Max: ...Max Burns...

Yeji: ...Yeji Cho...

Joy: ...Joy Domingo-Kameenui...

Nicole: ...Nicole Harris…

Remi: ...Remi Harrison…

Katie: ...Katie Heslip...

Sydney: ...Sydney Kim...

Rebecca: ...Rebecca Lizarde...

Katherine: ...Katherine Liyue Pan...

Daniel: ...Daniel Tong...

Daniela: ...Daniela Vallejo...

Ericka: ...Ericka Van Alstine...

Sravani: ...Sravani Duggirala...

Tara: ...Tara Sheenan.

Ozzie: Thank you for listening!