Making Nice: A Battle Cry for Biological Diversity

A few times a week for several months, I crossed paths with The Man Who Now Avoids Me. We first became acquainted through municipal government, then encountered each other on the trail in a local nature preserve. Whenever we chatted about native plants, I mentioned tidbits of information such as "Native plants are the foundation of the food web" or "Native habitat is essential for supporting ecosystem services." The Man -- highly educated and monetarily successful -- seemed to listen carefully. He usually asked a few questions before continuing on his way. I thought I was getting through.

Then came our encounter not long after the World Wildlife Fund's 10th Living Planet Report. The report's news wasn't good: Since 1970, 52 percent of the Earth's fish, mammals, birds, amphibians and reptiles have been lost. As I walked in the nature preserve that day, I found it difficult to focus on anything else. With population pressure, drought, fragmented habitat, lack of wildlife corridors, and ever-more-frequent wildfires, more decline was all too easy to imagine.

The Man said, "Last weekend, I visited a bioequivalent garden. There isn't a native in it, but the non-native plants do the same things for insects and animals as the native ones do."

"That's not possible," I said, "because of co-evolution."

"Well, the owner told me it's true," The Man said. "The idea sounds right to me."

"What's his data?" I said. "I'd be very interested to see scientific studies with that result, because it completely flies in the face of all the evidence out there."

"He didn't have any scientific studies. His landscaper told him it was true."

"Here's the scientific data," I said. "90 percent of leaf-eating insect species can eat only native plants. They die without them because they don't have the stomach enzymes to eat anything else, due to co-evolution."

The Man grimaced and, with a dismissive wave of his hand, said, "His garden was beautiful. I like the way it looks." He spoke as if the entire subject boiled down to personal taste as the ultimate concern.

And that's when I lost it. Years of hearing every cockeyed, self-absorbed rationale for preferences that exacerbate rather than mitigate the extinction crisis had finally taken their toll.

"Did you hear the result of the World Wildlife Fund's 10th Living Planet Report?" I asked, the look in my eyes no doubt intense. "The world now has 52-percent fewer wild animals than in 1970. We are in the sixth mass extinction! What we do in our yards matters! Beauty without ecological function is a waste of resources and space!"

Goggle-eyed, The Man started backing sideways down the dirt road, keeping one eye on me while trying to watch his footing amid the rocks and erosion.

I continued: "The report surveyed 3,000 species of wild vertebrate animals -- birds, mammals, fish, amphibians and reptiles -- in 10,000 populations around the world. We've lost more than half of those animals in 40 years! Gardens are habitat! They're not just about how things look!"

I'm sure The Man thought I was more than a little unpleasant. He was right.

I was livid because of his narrow view of what gardens are for: pleasing people, other species be damned.

I was consumed with grief for the creatures we are extirpating and pushing closer to extinction because of our lack of compassion and informed opinion.

I was utterly frustrated that I'd been talking with The Man for months and it was as though he hadn't heard a word.

I was completely at a loss about how to help The Man see that his actions, added to everyone else's actions, affect the fate of life on Earth.

"I really need to get going," The Man said, hurrying away, the tails of his shirt flapping.

"Do you like butterflies?" I shouted after him, aware of how ridiculous I must have sounded, but I wanted him to have the information. "The caterpillars of most butterflies can eat only one or two species of native plants! Without those plants, the caterpillars die!"

I pounded up the road to a bench with a 360-degree view of Los Angeles. Buildings nearly everywhere I looked, the natural landscape predominantly erased. And all around the buildings? Ornamental non-native plants that feed neither people nor wildlife. I wished The Man could understand that what we plant around the buildings matters.

Later, I complained to my husband about The Man. "He doesn't want to question the system," I fumed. "It's worked really well for him. He's part of the 1 percent. Likewise, he doesn't want to question the type of garden the system considers attractive. He doesn't want to upset his worldview. It's so much easier talking with people who aren't economically well off. More of them have minds that are open to new information."

I looked at a half-dozen websites. All the definitions of bioequivalence applied to pharmaceutical-industry drugs.

And since that afternoon in the nature preserve, I've had no further encounters with The Man. Not one.

Pleasantly dropping relevant facts into our conversations had been unpersuasive; going ballistic had been unpersuasive as well.

What to do? Besides apologizing for shouting, was there simply nothing to be done? Was The Man someone I would never reach, no matter how many times I talked with him, no matter what I said? Perhaps it was better to just write him off, much as I wrote off the La Cañada City Council in 2013 when they officially decided not to discuss a plastic bag ban because they feared the discussion would be divisive for the community.

This reluctance to actively consider something that causes cognitive dissonance or necessitates reappraisal of our actions is reprehensible. This reluctance is the death knell of countless species and ecosystems on Earth that we have come to love and are loathe to imagine the world without.

To paraphrase Edward O. Wilson, scientists estimate that, until people came on the scene, the extinction rate was one species per million per year. Scientists estimate that we're now losing somewhere between 18,000 and 140,000 species per year. At this rate of destruction, how much time do we have before we make life on Earth only a pale semblance of its recent richness?

Besides pharmaceutical-industry drugs, there's only bioequivalent bullshit, and making nice becomes more and more irresponsible with every species we lose. Making nice will yield only tragedy. We need to agitate, adopt the Singapore Protocol for Biodiversity and make native habitat everywhere we can for the wild creatures that have managed to survive despite our near total alteration of the biosphere. Our descendants will thank us for not making nice, because we determine the world they inherit.

The views expressed are solely those of the author.