CHE 300

Environmental Science

Dr. J. A. Schneider
Dept. of Chemistry
SUNY Oswego
Oswego, NY 13126

Rm: 237 Snygg Hall
Tel: 315.312.2124
Environmental Investigations: Hey, Yew Never Know... by Jeffery A. Schneider, Ph.D.

Issues and Background

Don't it always seem to go, that you don't know what you've got till it's gone.
~ from the song "Paved Paradise" by Joni Mitchell

Biodiversity, described by Edward O. Wilson as 'the totality of the inherited variation of all forms of life across all levels of variation, from ecosystem to species to gene', is under severe attack. Its ecological roots are neglected. Paving and populating, consuming and polluting, human activities are having a great adverse impact on our living nature. Human activities and - more fundamental - underlying structural factors and material processes in our society are causing species to vanish at a rate unequalled since the doomsdays of the dinosaur. The next great extinction will be more fizzle than fireworks. In fact, it is already begun. More is at stake than simply the spice of life. Each species takes its secrets to the grave: potential solutions to coming ecological crises in the biosphere, possible cures to medical mysteries. There's no time to waste. We must protect biodiversity now, for our families, our children, our future!!
Encyclopedia of Biodiversity

Tom Jones (not his real name) grew up in the 1980s and at the time was a self-proclaimed "tree-hugger". He led a good life, cared deeply about the environment and always tried to do the "right thing". He and his friends even formed an organization called "Trees Are People Too" and Tom was quickly elected president. Their mission was to make the rest of the world aware of what they knew in their hearts to be true: that trees and all living things had the "right to an existence" and that they should be preserved "no matter what". They were tired of the fact that species after species was becoming extinct as a result of human activity. In 1990, someone sent Tom an anonymous letter describing something they saw on a recent hike through the forest. They reported seeing people scraping bark off of Pacific Yew trees and in some cases cutting down entire Pacific Yew trees and dragging them out of the forest. After a little research Tom discovered that it was a drug company that was taking these trees and that it was for "scientific studies". Tom and his organization sprung into action. They gathered all of their members and started planning how they would "stop the senseless destruction" of these trees. Over the course of the next year, "Trees Are People Too" held numerous rallies and sit-ins, drawing attention to the actions of the drug companies. Then, just when everything seemed to be going so well for him, two days after the biggest demonstration in the history of "Trees Are People Too", Tom's life changed forever.

He listened to the message on his answering machine over and over as if doing so would somehow change it for the better. It was his mother and she had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Her only hope she said, was a new miracle drug called Taxol® which was isolated from the bark of the Pacific Yew tree. The very trees he wanted to save from the drug companies could in fact save the life of his mother. He was torn. Should he abandon his life's work and be grateful for the miracle drug or should he stand fast for everything he believed in?

The kind of scenario outlined above happens all the time. Perhaps many of us can empathize with Tom. We all have to make choices at one time or another but most of them are not nearly as cut and dried, as we would like. Of course, most are not nearly as drastic as Tom's choice either: does he save a tree or save his mother? The answer is that he can probably save both by using his organization to lobby the drug companies to act responsibly while harvesting Pacific Yew trees. In other words, if we can use resources sustainably, we can have our cake and eat it too.

I could have just as easily told a different story about how the Pacific Yew tree was actually considered a "pest species" and that it wasn't thought to be worth very much. If this were the case, what would have happened to Tom's mother if all of the Pacific Yew trees had been eradicated and the species had become extinct? No Pacific Yew trees would have meant no Taxol®, which would have meant a bleak prognosis for Tom's mother. This is just one example of how preserving a species, preserving biological diversity, is a good thing. Every species in an ecosystem is connected to every other species in that ecosystem in some way; some more clearly than others, but connected nonetheless.

Ask Yourself These Questions
  1. If you were in Tom's position what would you do and why?
  2. The precursor to aspirin was originally isolated from the bark of the willow tree. Use the Internet to research some common medicines and their natural plant sources.
  3. Is biodiversity important to you? How so?
  4. Should the government be in the business of protecting endangered species? In other words, should the Endangered Species Act even exist?
Different Perspectives in the Debate

  • Pacific Forestry Centre
    http://www.pfc.forestry.ca/ecology/yew/index_e.html
    This site was developed by the Pacific Forestry Centre in British Columbia, Canada and is intended to summarize research efforts at the centre.
  • Toxins to Treatments
    http://www.portfolio.mvm.ed.ac.uk/studentwebs/session2/group13/index.html
    This site is sponsored by the University of Edinburgh and outlines numerous treatments for illness that are derived from natural sources.
  • Values of Biodiversity
    http://darwin.bio.uci.edu/~sustain/bio65/lec07/b65lec07.htm
    This is Chapter 7 in a hypertext book by Peter J. Bryant and is on the University of California - Irvine's School of Biological Sciences website. Access to this page is open to anyone. Registered UCI students can view an accompanying slide show.
  • Convention on Biodiversity
    http://www.biodiv.org/default.asp
    From the website: Recognizing the importance of biodiversity to our daily lives and the pressure that human activities are placing on our living world, governments adopted the Convention on Biological Diversity in 1992 as a framework for action.
  • Biodiversity and Protected Areas
    http://www.wri.org/wri/biodiv/
    From the World Resources Institute website: Since 1984, WRI has focused extensively on issues supporting the conservation, sustainable use, and equitable distribution of benefits of biodiversity throughout the world.
  • Measuring Biodiversity
    http://www.nhm.ac.uk/science/projects/worldmap/diversity/
    The Natural History Museum is the UK's national museum of natural history and is located in London. This site tries to answer the question: how do we put a value on biodiversity?
  • Center for Biodiversity and Conservation
    http://research.amnh.org/biodiversity/
    From the website: The Center for Biodiversity and Conservation's activities integrate scientific research, education, and outreach so that people, themselves major catalysts in the rapid loss of biodiversity, will become participants in its conservation.
  • Encyclopedia of Biodiversity
    http://www.biodiversity.nl/encyclopedia.htm
    There are over twenty subject areas in the encyclopedia including sections on microbial and plant biodiversity, as well as the economics of biodiversity.
  • ETI - World Biodiversity Database
    http://www.eti.uva.nl/Database/WBD.html
    From the website: ETI's World Biodiversity Database is a continuously growing taxonomic database and information system that aims at documenting all presently known species (about 1.7 million) and to make this important biological information worldwide accessible. Access to this online information system is free of charge for noncommercial use: scientific and educational purposes.
  • The Biodiversity Center - Defenders of Wildlife
    http://www.defenders.org/bio-cont.html
    Sponsored by the Defenders of Wildlife, the Biodiversity Center's website has an area describing what biodiversity is and makes the case for saving endangered species.
  • The U.S. Endangered Species Act of 1973
    http://endangered.fws.gov/esa.html
    This is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's site devoted to the Endangered Species Act.

All material (except for some code and external links) © Jeffery A. Schneider, 2003