Despite being on this planet for roughly 200,000 years, we humans still know very little about Earth. Sure, we’ve discovered many governing principles of physics, biology and chemistry, but we still lack information on a lot of specifics regarding our lovely planet. Even though our population is growing rapidly, there are still many places on Earth that have not experienced any human contact. Wild jungles, the depths of oceans, and even underground, all these places have not been explored, for better or worse. There are countless microscopic organisms that contribute to the environment, and we still haven’t found a solid explanation for why animals can sense natural disasters before even our best forecasting equipment can. There are the things you know, there are the things you don’t know but know you exist, and then there are the things that you don’t know simply because you don’t even know they exist. It’s the third category that I’m talking about. The point I’m making is that the Earth is a huge system that is made up of countless organisms and processes, many that we don’t even know exist. Yet all these parts work together in almost unimaginable ways to create a smoothly functioning Earth. We may think that we know the consequences of our actions, but I’m pretty confident that there are plenty of unforeseen consequences.
That’s why it’s important to maintain the Earth’s biodiversity, or variety of life. Biodiversity is what ensures a species’ survival after being struck by an epidemic. Biodiversity is what gives us so many unique organisms that we can learn from. Preserving biodiversity isn’t just something that environmentalists do, doctors understand that biodiversity leads to discoveries of new drugs, and – seeing as everything is connected – biodiversity affects the health of humanity by ensuring quality of the environment and water. Biodiversity is what gives us such things as Tardigrades, or the Titan Arum, or plastic-eating fungi.
I know this story came out a few months ago, but I decided that it was worth writing about, mostly because I am still pretty excited about it. Not to mention it’s a good example of why we need to maintain Earth’s biodiversity. While on a rainforest expedition in Ecuador, some Yale students discovered a type of fungus that has the ability to devour polyurethane (the plastic found in many modern-day items). Not only can the fungus eat plastic, it can eat it in an anaerobic setting (oxygen-free) which makes it a good candidate for biodegrading plastic waste at the bottom of landfills. I think that’s pretty amazing. I’m not scientist, but I’m pretty sure that polyurethane isn’t a naturally occurring chemical (since it doesn’t biodegrade on its own), so I’m really curious as to how this particular fungus evolved to eat the plastic.
It’s these kinds of discoveries that give me a little more hope that humanity may have a chance to start living sustainably (my definition of sustainability has evolved over time, but for now I define living sustainably as generating zero waste and zero impact, or if any waste and impact is generated, it is also for the benefit of some other organism or the environment, thus creating a closed loop). Here’s something that the mysterious realms of the Earth has produced that solves a pretty big problem that we’ve had in terms of waste management. Of course, I’m sure that now scientists are going to study the fungus and see if they can isolate the enzyme or whatever that lets this fungus do what it does best. But the point is that while we’ve been trying to create a solution, the Earth goes ahead and provides one for us. Who knows what else is out there for us to learn? I don’t know about you, but I’m excited to hear about what else people will discover, as long as we don’t screw anything else up in the process. We’re surrounded with solutions, we just have to look.