The Little Things That Run the Planet

We can restore biodiversity one person at a time with three simple actions.

In 1987, in an address for a new invertebrate exhibit at the National Zoological Park,  esteemed ecologist and Pulitzer-prize-winning author E.O. Wilson called for the conservation of “the little things that run the earth.” He reminded us that we need invertebrates but they don’t need us: if they disappeared from the planet, the human species would have only months left on the earth.

Thirty-four years later, researchers are making headlines with the grim news of the decline of biodiversity through the process of extinction.  

  • In 2014, less than 1% of the invertebrate species had been assessed and of those, 40% were considered threatened according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
  • In 2019, the first-ever comprehensive assessment of bird populations revealed a startling conclusion: the North American bird population lost nearly 3 billion birds since 1970.
  • In 2020, researchers announced that 65 North American plant species are now extinct, and even more plant species are considered extinct in the wild, meaning that these plants may only exist in botanical gardens or seed banks.
  • In 2020, writer, broadcaster, and natural historian, Sir David Attenborough, offered a grave description of the future for our planet: climate change, rising human population, and excess capitalism will reduce biodiversity through extinction, with huge implications for all forms of life.

Each of these realities shares one major factor: the decline of quality habitat. The world of native ecosystems involves complex relationships between native flora and fauna. These interactions evolved over millennia and are often highly specialized. One of the most well-known examples is the Monarch butterfly’s dependency on milkweed as the sole host for its larvae.

The daily reports of environmental degradation, the effects of climate change, and ecosystem destruction can become overwhelming and cause a deep sense of helplessness.

What can one individual possibly do?

Ecologist and author, Dr. Doug Tallamy, asserts that there is plenty one individual can do and you don’t even have to leave your home. We can start with our home landscapes and join a collective movement called the Homegrown National Park, helping to restore biodiversity one person at a time. 

This call to action starts with three strategies to create landscapes that support our native fauna.

Rip out the lawn.

Across the United States, the monoculture of turfgrass has replaced 40 million acres of diverse native plant communities and we are adding 500 sq. miles each year. Tallamy describes the American lawn as an ecological wasteland that offers little food and shelter for insects, birds, and butterflies.

The statistics are staggering: 

  • Irrigation for US landscapes, which consist of mostly non-native turfgrass and ornamental plants, consumes 8 billion gallons of water daily. 
  • US homeowners use the same amount of fertilizer on their lawns as industrial agriculture and more often than not it is applied incorrectly.
  • Almost half of the chemicals used by the lawn care industry are banned in other countries because they are rated as carcinogens.
  • Pesticides and fertilizers used on our non-native landscapes can seep into our private and public wells.
  • The production of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers and the weekly use of gasoline-powered lawn care equipment produces a large number of greenhouse gases.
  • Collectively, Americans spend 3 billion hours each year tending our lawns. And over half of us don’t enjoy it!
Lawns were an expression of wealth among wealthy Europeans and were brought to America, creating one of the largest monocrops in North America. Image by Pia from Pixabay 
Lawns were an expression of wealth among wealthy Europeans and were brought to America, creating one of the largest monocrops in North America. Image by Pia from Pixabay 

Stop using pesticides and herbicides.

While the collapse of honeybees and the rapid decline of Monarch butterfly populations make headlines, they represent only two of many species that are struggling with the toxic landscapes found throughout North America. Pesticides are not selective: in addition to killing pests, they can be toxic to insect pollinators, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and aquatic organisms.

Recent research indicates that species exposed to synthetic pesticides are experiencing significant population declines. 

Humans are also affected by both the industrial and personal use of pesticides. Thirty of the common pesticides used on landscapes are linked to a variety of cancers, human organ damage, birth defects, reproductive effects, neurotoxicity, and endocrine disruption. 

Commercial application of pesticides: multiply this by millions of agricultural acres throughout the world. Image by Th G from Pixabay 
Commercial application of pesticides: multiply this by millions of agricultural acres throughout the world. Image by Th G from Pixabay 

In 2020, a systematic review by researchers concluded that 44% of farmers, farmworkers, and pesticide applicators experience at least one acute pesticide poisoning each year and 11,000 die annually from accidental poisoning.

Scott Hoffman Black, Executive Director of the international organization, Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation agrees that creating native habitat is necessary, but he is blunt about the fact that more must be done, starting with our use of pesticides. 

“Pesticides – especially insecticides – have to be addressed if we are going to solve this problem. We use more pesticides now than ever on this planet and they are found almost everywhere. Some USGS research shows more pesticide residue in towns and cities than in agricultural areas. We did a study with the University of Nevada Reno. More than 200 milkweed samples were gathered from urban, agricultural, and natural sites as well as from retail nurseries, and tested for pesticides. A total of 64 different pesticides were found, with an average of nine per sample and as many as 25. Samples from all of the locations studied were contaminated, sometimes at levels harmful to monarchs and other insects.”

Scott Hoffman Black, Executive Director, Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation

Recreate a native ecosystem by planting native plants.  

Though 14% of US land is protected, our national effort to preserve native landscapes through parks and wilderness designations is simply not enough to support our native wildlife. Over 80% of US land is in private ownership, much of it in industrial agriculture and home landscapes. 

Tallamy believes our home landscapes are part of the solution to the problem: by creating native ecosystems in our yards we can build diverse biological corridors that support native wildlife.

Most of our home landscape plants come from other continents. While they may be utilized by some of our native insects and birds, research by Tallamy and others indicates native insects, butterflies, moths, and birds overwhelmingly prefer native plants. 

The term native is typically applied to plants that have developed within an ecosystem or region for hundreds or thousands of years and in the US, prior to European colonization. But Tallamy offers a more specific and now critically important use of the term native: In the context of ecosystems, it describes a plant’s function and its role within an ecological system. How many specialized relationships with other species does it have? How has it adapted over the years to the climate, soil, diseases, and predators found in its habitat?

Elderberry abundance: I harvest the lower half and leave the top half for the birds. Photo: SK
Elderberry abundance: I harvest the lower half and leave the top half for the birds. Photo: SK

Plant choices matter to our wildlife because not all food is equal. Research on the nutrition of berries – a food source critical to adult birds – of both native and non-native shrubs revealed that native North American shrubs produce summer berries high in sugars and autumn berries high in fats. Most of the introduced Eurasian plants produce fall berries containing little fat.

Food choice for newly hatched birds is even more important. Caterpillars, the larvae of moths and butterflies, are the preferred baby bird food: soft, packed with protein and fats, and easy to digest, caterpillars are easy to transport and feed to the nestlings. 

The best food for newly hatched birds is caterpillars. Photo by Jonah Brown on Unsplash
The best food for newly hatched birds is caterpillars. Photo by Jonah Brown on Unsplash

Biodiversity is key to the stability of ecosystems. Adding native plants to our yards is key to increasing biodiversity. The good news is that gardeners do not have to go 100% native; mixing in native and non-native plants serves the same goal. 

For home gardeners, there are several advantages to growing native plants: they require no pesticides and fertilizers, need little watering once established and when the right plant is planted in the right place it needs little pruning. And don’t overlook the entertainment and educational opportunities: checking under leaves for caterpillars, watching birds come and go, and chasing butterflies are joyful activities for people of all ages. 

In her book, Real Gardens Grow Natives, author Eileen Stark describes native plant gardens as compassionate gardens: they work with and for nature.

  • Native plants provide shelter and food for wildlife.
  • They use less water since they have adapted to regional climates.
  • Increase pollination opportunities.
  • Support pest control by attracting a diversity of wildlife.
  • They prevent disruption to native wildlife and larger ecosystems by creating a biological corridor.

For decades, we have outsourced conservation to scientists. It’s time for all of us to assume responsibility for this incredible planet we call home. I asked Dr. Tallamy how he would rate the importance of preserving biodiversity in comparison to climate change: 

“I would rate it right up there with climate change. An intolerably hot and erratic climate will destroy the species that run the ecosystems we depend on, but so will the wanton destruction of those ecosystems and their species by humans who think that healthy natural systems are optional. Both forms of ecosystem destruction will do us in as a species.”

Dr. Douglas Tallamy, Ecologist and author of Bringing Nature Home & Nature’s Last Hope

With the creation of his Half-Earth project, E.O.Wilson has called for the unprecedented action of protecting half of the planet. The stakes could not be any higher: “Unless humanity learns a great deal more about global biodiversity and moves quickly to protect it, we will soon lose most of the species composing life on Earth.”


Backyard Habitats

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