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Biodiversity and Human Health


The eminent Harvard biology professor Edward O. Wilson once said about ants, “We need them to survive, 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. Yet, we humans often act as if we are totally independent of our environment, as if our driving thousands of other species to extinction, and disrupting the life-giving services they provide, will have no effect on us whatsoever.

The fundamental truth is that biodiversity matters profoundly to human health in almost every conceivable way. The roles that individual species, and the ecosystems they make up, play in providing food, fuel and unique medicinal compounds; air, water and soil purification services; and natural regulation of infectious disease, to name a few, are critical to our health and survival. The loss of species as a result of human activity and the degradation of ecosystems ongoing around the world lowers the quality of the planet’s natural resources and destabilizes the physical environment. 

Because of the very high level of current extinctions, scientists say we have now entered the "sixth great extinction" event, the fifth having occurred sixty-five million years ago, when dinosaurs and many other organisms went extinct. That event resulted from natural causes, perhaps a giant asteroid striking the Earth; this one we are causing.

Little attempt has been made to utilize biodiversity to enhance public health, a neglect that produces the greatest burden for developing countries, where 80 percent of humanity lives and most health crises erupt. 

About This Program

The Center's Biodiversity and Human Health Program informed policymakers and educated the public about the importance of preserving biodiversity through the lens of human health.

Former Program Director Eric Chivian, along with Aaron Bernstein, were co-editors and lead authors of the most comprehensive review available about the relationship of human health to biodiversity, the Oxford University Press book Sustaining Life: How Our Health Depends on Biodiversity. Published in 2008, the book, now in its fourth printing, has been adopted as a text in large numbers of high schools and universities in many countries, and is slated to appear in Chinese, Japanese, Spanish and Arabic editions.

Drs. Chivian and Bernstein continue to lecture all over the world on the importance of biodiversity to human health, from the EPA in China, to the US National Institutes of Health, to the Library of Alexandria in Egypt.

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Photo: Firebellied Toad © Hotshotsworldwide |