Reflections on biological and cultural diversity in our communities


Sun shines through trees onto a stream and walkway in a forest

By Price Sheppy
Marin Park Stewardship

Park Stewardship at the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy works at the intersection of human and ecological communities. In Park Stewardship, we bring people into our park spaces to heal and restore the health of these spaces. We believe that an ecological community is not fully restored until there is a human community that loves and cares for the plants and animals in our parks. Bringing together ecological and human communities is an amazing, transformative experience for the people and ecosystems involved. At the end of a day in the park, people leave feeling a deeper connection to the natural world, and the world is a healthier place. People are often left with more curiosity about the connection between the human and natural world. Exploring these connections can help us understand our place in the world.

The national parks celebrate and protect biodiversity. Biodiversity creates strong ecosystems that are resilient and can adapt to the changes of an uncertain future. Can these principles of biodiversity be applied to our understanding of cultural diversity, and do the same elements of diversity also create strong human communities?

Biodiversity creates ecosystems that can adapt to change. Plants hold down the soil and prevent erosion, they provide habitat for animals to build homes in, and provide a food source for herbivores. Without a diversity of plant species, changes in the ecosystem can kill many plants and an ecosystem’s ability to support animal life can plummet. If there’s a diversity of plants and a drought occurs, the plants that have drought resistance can survive while other less-resistant plants may die. If we have excessive rain or flooding, those drought-resistant plants may die, but other water-tolerant plants will survive and thrive. Having a diversity of plants means that no matter what change comes to the ecosystem, the ecosystem can adapt while still providing clean air, clean water, and habitat for animals. Can the same be said about diversity in human communities? Are diverse human communities stronger and more resilient to environmental and social changes?

Our comparison with humans and biodiversity immediately fails because humans are all one species. This is important to point out and celebrate. We are all connected together as humankind. We are brothers and sisters all across the world. We are the human family no matter where you are born in this world. Remembering this can help us fight against racism. Yet, we need to remember that we do have differences that are important to us. These differences are expressed through culture.

Humans have different stories, life experiences, and family histories that shape who they are. Strong cultures exist around the globe with unique ways of being in the world. Unique ways of being shaped by location, history, stories, and struggles. This is what cultural diversity is.

The cultural diversity of the Bay Area is a source of strength. Many different backgrounds and histories mean there are many different people with different perspectives. These perspectives bring new ideas and ways of solving challenges. Diverse cultural communities can draw on knowledge from many different cultures to find the best way to move forward. Resilience is created in the face of uncertainty because we have more options and possibilities to draw from.

Cultural diversity also creates struggle. Cultural diversity without communication and human connection causes conflict. When people have multiple perspectives and weak connections with other communities and people, it’s hard to work together. These challenges are mirrored in the parks’ work with biodiversity.

While having a diversity of plants is generally a good thing, challenges do occur.  When new plants are introduced by animal or human mechanisms, most of the time they die because they do not have important connections with the new ecosystem. They don’t know how to find nutrients and water. Some plants do survive in new ecosystems and find similar relationships from the ecosystem they evolved in. They are able to find connections and to get their needs met. These species find a new balance with the new animals and other plants within an ecosystem. These species take only some of the resources available, and often give back to an ecosystem by providing habitat or food for other species.

Some species arrive in a new ecosystem and find they can take resources. Unfortunately, in some cases, these species do not contribute back to the balance of the ecosystem. These plants don’t provide habitat or food for other species and the connections are only one-way; The ecosystem gets thrown out of balance and all the other diversity of species are put into jeopardy. A lot can be gained by reflecting on how ecosystems find and lose balance.

Reflecting on the example of biodiversity, one can see how diversity with connections is a good thing, but diversity without connection can be benign or damaging to the community at large. As people, we often have to think about how we fit into larger communities. These communities could be our neighborhoods or work. Taking lessons from nature, we can think about what we need to survive in our communities and also what we can give back to our communities. Are we putting our communities out of balance by taking too much? This could be too much mental and physical space, or too many physical resources.

So far we’ve been talking about diversity in the context of a community of species living together. Biodiversity and cultural diversity can also be talked about in relationship to the individual. Diversity acknowledges the uniqueness of each individual. Biodiversity celebrates the unique genetic story of species and their unique ways of being in the world. Cultural diversity celebrates the unique story of individuals and the intersectionality of multiple cultural identities within one person.

There are a lot of fertile conversations and ideas that can arise when exploring a human’s place in nature. The more we learn about nature, the more we learn about a human’s connection and place in the world.

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