Coral reefs, the Nobel prize, and the economy

What makes a reef a reef?

Coral reefs,  the Nobel prize and economic performance all have something  in common. Bear with me a moment as I (hopefully) resolve this curious claim.

As an ecologist, I may be biased, but there is nothing more beautiful to me than a coral reef. So many colors, so many forms all fin to fin in a small space; coral reefs contain nearly a quarter of all the species in the sea in less than 1% of its area.

This beauty is more than beguiling–the science tells us that the diversity of the species within an ecosystem affects its productivity.  A  species in a community performs a specific role for which it is most adapted, so greater diversity means a greater utilization of existing resources. This results in a system that is better able to take advantage of the energy and materials moving through it. One fish’s waste is another’s treasure. Therefore, it is no surprise that coral reefs are among the most productive habitats on the planet.

Science also tells us that greater diversity creates greater resilience. A shock to the system that strongly affects one species is blunted by other species that can occupy some part of the niche of those harmed. This allows another species to assume at least some functions performed by the previous one. More resilient systems also are less stressed by disturbances,  and it takes a larger disturbance to disrupt them.  The call to preserve species diversity comes not from a moral imperative (although it is that), but from enlightened self-interest to protect important ecosystems.

On Nobel prize winners and healthy economies

Diversity in human communities may work in a manner akin to that of species diversity.  The Los Angeles March for Science reminds us that all 6 of the 2016 Nobel prize winners from the US are immigrants. Their powerful video clearly shows that different backgrounds and perspectives drive innovation and discovery. The questions people ask and the ways they address them are a product of their backgrounds; those with different backgrounds pose questions not asked by others, or answer them in a unique way.  Diversity is the engine of progress.

Equally revealing are observations from the Urban Institute about healthy economies. They show that economic well-being increases as communities become more integrated, that is, more diverse.  Economic and racial segregation both lower the per capita income. This is directly analogous to the findings in ecosystems; diversity begets productivity.  Although no explanation is provided, we can imagine that the function of diversity in human communities is similar to that in ecosystems–diversity produces a synergy of roles that benefits us all.

On cycles..and cycles

Diversity then, is a virtuous cycle. Greater diversity empowers communities, and increases our scientific understanding of the world. In turn, we are able to use our knowledge to sustain human communities and those natural ones upon which we depend. However, these systems all share an important trait.  Diversity enhances the chance that these human and natural systems are beneficial to those residing within them.

What then, should we make of recent reports suggesting that antipathy for both science and human diversity has made us a less desirable destination for those from other lands? I think of a different cycle-water circling a drain.

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