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WASHINGTON, DCAccording to an EPA study conducted in conjunction with the U.N. Task Force On Global Developmental Impact, consumer-product diversity now exceeds biodiversity.
According to the study, for the first time in history, the rich array of consumer products available in malls and supermarkets surpasses the number of living species populating the planet.
"Last year's introduction of Dentyne Ice Cinnamint gum, right on the heels of the extinction of the Carolina tufted hen, put product diversity on top for the first time," study chair Donald Hargrove said. "Today, the Procter & Gamble subphylum alone outnumbers insects two to one."
The sharp rise in consumer-product diversitywith more than 200 million new purchasing options generated since 1993comes as welcome news for those upset over the dwindling number of plant and animal species.
"As more and more species fall victim to extinction, we face a grave crisis of decreased diversity, not only in America but across the globe," Hargrove said. "But the good news is, these losses in biodiversity are more than offset by a corresponding rise in consumer-product diversity. Though flora and fauna are dwindling, the spectrum of goods available to consumers is wider than at any time in planetary history. And that's something we can all be happy about."
Scientists are calling the current decrease in biodiversity one of the worst episodes of mass extinction in the Earth's history. The rate at which species are currently vanishing approaches that of the "K-T Event" that ended the Age of Dinosaurs 65 million years ago and resulted in a loss of 76 percent of the world's species. The current era of biodiversity depletion, however, is unique in that it is the first mass extinction to occur in conjunction with an expanding industrial society, and thus, the first in which consumer-product availability can function as a "balancing factor" to help keep global diversity thriving.
"Any healthy system needs diversification in order to flourish," University of Chicago biologist Jonathan Grogan said. "Any complex system, whether we are talking about the Amazon Rainforest or the Mall of America, needs a rich array of species/products if it is to survive. That is why, in light of the crumbling global ecosystem, it is increasingly vital that we foster the diversification of the global marketplace by buying the widest range of consumer products possible."
According to Grogan, because of the interdependent nature of systems like the Amazon Rainforest and the Mall of America, the disappearance of any one species/product can lead to the disappearance of countless others.
"The extinction of the Borneo hooded tern was an indirect result of the disappearance of the native species of sea snails upon which it fed," Grogan said. "This kind of vicious cycle, once begun, is impossible to contain. Fortunately, though, the process can function the same way in reverse: The successful introduction of a new item can lead to additional items later on. For example, the proliferation of Love My Carpet-brand carpet cleaner in hall closets across America would not have been possible without the introduction of the affordable, easy-to-use Hoover 5.0 upright vacuum cleaner. And thus, the cycle of life goes on."
According to science writer David Quammen, much of the rise in consumer-product diversity is a direct result of the decrease in biodiversity.
"When a species vanishes, the world loses not only that species, but the wide range of highly specialized physical and biochemical functions that species served. These ecological losses necessitate the creation of new, synthetic products capable of serving the same functions," Quammen said. "So, for example, when we lose a strain of microbe that filters the water we drink, we compensate by developing the amazing Brita water filter, with its patented filtration technology. When we lose a plant in the jungles of Indonesia whose berry bears an extremely rare nutrient, we develop in its place fruity, fun-to-eat Flintstones chewable vitamin supplements."
Read the EPA report: "The planet Earth stands on the brink of one of the most devastating global extinctions in history. By the year 2040, nearly two-thirds of all current species will be extinct. Rainforest habitats that were once lush canopies of life, sustaining millions of highly specialized and interdependent species of plants and animals, have been reduced by upwards of 95 percent in some areas. Thankfully, however, retail outlets which, as little as 50 years ago, were the domain of only a handful of basic staple goods, have evolved into lush, highly developed supermarkets and department stores with a nearly limitless abundance of consumer goods."
Environmental and business leaders cheered the report's optimistic findings, but they warn that consumers still have their work cut out for them.
"As our ecological resources continue to disappear, we must all do our part," Quaker Oats CEO Reuben McCall said. "That means diligent, conscientious commitment to increased consumption of new products. If these products are not bought, nobody will manufacture them. And if this were to happen, the damage to the precious diversity of our consumer landscape would be disastrous."
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