One of the great tragedies of the current environmental crisis is the present and potential loss of about 50% of everything, including everything we never knew existed and now never will. Most of the estimates of the impact of human behavior on the world suggest that over the next century, human beings will destroy about 50% of the life on earth. That is, more than 50% of all frog and fish species. Almost 50% of all plant species. Tens of millions of insect species. All those large mammals we purport to care about.
These may be the last years of the Polar Bear, the Great Apes, the Elephants, and those, of course, are the poster children for extinction. But we will probably miss as much or more, in our own way, the native British bumblebee, the spearfish, or the dozens of South American tree frogs. Some of these creatures we will not grieve because we will never have known they existed. Others we will miss, but we won't be able to identify what we miss - we'll miss the beauty of the wild animals gone extinct, but our children will remember them only as story creatures, the dinosaurs of their days. What name will we put on "the quality of loss that one generation feels for something that seems imaginary to another?" I'm sure some language has a word for this, but ours, as yet, does not. Or perhaps we'll miss them when we suddenly need them. We'll miss the wild plant that might have provided the only cure for a newly developing epidemic. We'll miss the landrace species of potatoes that would have prevented worldwide crop loss from a new disease. We'll miss the old breed of cows that would have allowed the current Jerseys and Holsteins to live through a new infectious disease. We'll long for the seeds of the past, the wild plant that would have meant enough vitamin A in our diets and sight for our grandchild. We'll miss the species that would have provided for another species that would have enabled the pollinators to survive and provide us with fruit. Novelists will coin words and create a poetics of the loss of things we never really knew we had, and thus, did not value.
The reality is that we don't fully grasp how much we depend on other species - for example, some species support as many as 200 other species by pollinating the right plants, providing food for others, etc... We don't grasp how vulnerable we are to a worldwide plague, or blight, as our crop varieties get narrower and narrower. We don't fully grasp how vulnerable *we* are to the loss of our ecosystem. Because, if we understood it, we'd have to stop - even if the price of stopping were high. How much easier to ride gaily towards extinction - whose extinction, we shall not know until we know.
It may be too late for some species - the black rhino, for example, has already probably fallen below the number required for long term survival. But before we keen our song of mourning, perhaps each of us should ask whether we've done everything we possibly can to ensure the survival of our own share of the world's diversity. Because, after all, all of us have a little bit of control over the world around us - maybe just a very small amount, perhaps enough to save one breed of plant, one meter of wild space, one single species. But, as they say in my own faith, he who has saved a single life, it is as if he has saved the whole world. Now that was spoken of human lives, but it may be that some portion of the whole world depends on your personal commitment to diversity.
First, there are seeds. Even if you only grow in windowboxes, or a tiny garden plot, you can save some varieties of seed. And if you take up a variety of seed that isn't one of the most common (you can get many of them by joining Seed Savers Exchange at www.seedsaver.org, or join a local seed saver's group) ones, you may well be preserving a food plant that would otherwise go extinct. The best estimates suggest that over the last 200 years, between 50 and 80% of the known domesticated varieties of common vegetables were lost, including their precious genetic material, and their adaptation to local coniditions. The potato, the pea, the squash you grow in your garden may be the last in the whole world, and the seeds you save the only ones that can keep it going, or perhaps you will adapt a new variety to the conditions you and others most need.
Because, of course, seed saving and plant breeding are the same process in some cases. The farmer who selects her best plants, best adapted to her soils and conditions, is creating genetic material slightly different from the material that you started with. Your "Hopi Blue Jade" corn, grown in your own soils, in your own climate for a few years will be appreciably, notably and genetically different than the Hopi Blue Jade someone across the country or the world has adapted to their place. It may have resistance to different diseases, a greater cold or heat tolerance, an ability to adapt to particular types of soil.
We breed seeds when we consciously select and choose our best, as well as when we set out to create something new. Each act of seed saving is an act of creation, of selection, the transformation of something that is continually, eternally becoming, a selection shaded by time and climate and soil and water, but also human intention, wisdom and commitment to the future.
One of the most important things we can do, then, is preserve old varieties and also breed new ones, whether by formal plant breeding or by wise selection of plants to save seed from. The best books on these subjects are Suzanne Ashworth's _Seed to Seed_ and Carol Deppe's wonderful book _Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties_. Even if you've never imagined yourself as a plant breeder, Deppe's book is well worth a read for a deeper understanding of plant genetics and selection.
The more we grow out old and uncommon, forgotten and lost varieties, the greater the degree of genetic variation we preserve. There are seed banks, of course, to preserve them, but the best way to keep seeds alive is to grow them, eat their products and plant them again.
We also should grow as great a variety of crops and as many kinds of each crop as we can. Some of us in very small gardens will not be able to grow a large variety of anything, but those of us with space should hedge our bets, growing more than one kind of each thing whenever possible. There will be some accidental genetic crossing, but that isn't necessarily bad - while we want to preserve old varieties, reasonable care can allow us to grow multiples. And the simple fact is that if we ever have to rely on the products of our garden for our food, we are safest with a wide variety of plants and animals in our lives.
So, for example, it is easy to grow many varieties of beans and peas without worrying about crossing. Tomatoes can be spaced apart a small amount. Even that difficult cross-pollinator corn can be grown by time sequencing in many climates - two or three sequential crops can be grown and the seed saved.
The reason for this is twofold - to keep as many varieties as possible alive, but also to keep your garden going, and your belly full, even if you have an attack of pests or diseases, flood or drought. You may not live in a tepary bean climate, but that unusually dry year, it might be the only one that produces well. My Purple Peruvian potatoes never fail me, no matter what the weather, even if I prefer Green Mountain as a staple.
Besides growing multiple varieties within a species, growing a range of crops makes a huge difference. I'm fond of the phrase "belt and braces" - that is, as much duplication of purpose as humanly possible. Redundancy is your protection. So besides your potatoes and wheat, add some Amaranth, Corn and Buckwheat. Besides your apples, try Medlars or Mulberries. Add groundnuts and jerusalem artichokes to go with your peanuts and sweet potatoes.
And don't just get fixated on food - a good garden needs wild places, to increase diversity as well. Even a tiny yard can have a patch of multi-purpose attractive insectiary plants - dill and cilantro gone to seed, along with bee balm, echinacea and hyssop and some tall grass or wildflowers to provide a place for ground nesting birds and wild pollinators to live. Or perhaps you can leave that dead tree standing to provide nests, or some brush piled up near your compost to make a home for birds.
Instead of having your local park mowed every other day at great expense and with great exhaust, perhaps consider campaigning to let the grass grow longer, to plant a meadow or simply leave some areas wild. Perhaps you can get your city to let you turn a vacant lot into a wildlife garden or bird sanctuary, a seed saver's garden or orchard. Perhaps you can convince them not to build that access road that takes out so much wildlife, to preserve those wetlands, to keep what diversity is left going. But don't forget the overarching issue - we've lost so many environmental battles by focusing on the animal we want to preserve, not the larger issue of human impacts. Wearing your Wildlife Federation t-shirt while driving to the mall and home to your McMansion is missing the point.
What about animals? Oddly, I sometimes hear the argument that domesticated animals don't "count" in the diversity game. And if we had to choose between domesticated animals and wildlife, we probably should choose the wildlife. But most of the endangered and landrace species of domestic animal are the answer to the terrible environmental impact of today's industrial livestock breeds. The Icelandic sheep, bred to winter on four bales of hay and the fat on her back, and still bear a healthy lamb in Iceland's difficult winters is a far better answer to our desire for good protein than either infinite fields of GMO soybeans or feedlot cows. Pasture is generally the most diverse ecosystem on a farm, with more wildlife than cultivated fields that get run over by heavy equipment. Animals that can primarily or solely grass, and are adapted to climates where it is difficult to raise crops or till soil are the logical things to raise on prairie lands that turn to desert when they are tilled or on hilly, rocky, cold wet ground like the northeast. We can produce much needed food, fiber and manure on soils, while still leaving them open to use by as much wildlife as possible.
The reality is that the preservation of genetic diversity is one of the most important and urgent projects we have. We need as many species, wild and tame, of as many plants and animals as possible. The more we cultivate them, preserve them, save their seed, spread them around, even guerilla plant them into uncovered soil, the better the chance that we and our children will have a world to grow up in.
As you are designing your land use, as you are working within your neighborhoods and community, remember the watchwords - diversify, diversify, diversify. It is as if you have saved the whole world.