Shahid Naeem and his team are unwavering when it comes to the need for preserving biodiversity; their motto is “Ecology with no apology.” The planet is facing its sixth mass extinction, which means nearly half of all species could disappear in the next few decades. Director of science at the Earth Institute’s Center for Environmental Research and Conservation (CERC), Naeem works with others to study the environmental consequences of declining biodiversity.
“Everywhere, ecosystems are becoming more and more impoverished, losing species at staggering rates,” says Naeem, “and once they are gone, it is extraordinarily difficult to bring them back.” Climate change, overharvests, pollution, disease, biological invasions, the degradation of habitats and the unsustainable use of natural resources all contribute to the impoverishment of ecosystems or, more simply, biodiversity loss. Naeem believes biodiversity loss is the single most significant challenge facing contemporary ecology and the single most pervasive impediment to achieving environmental health and sustainable development.
Ecosystems provide everything humans need to live, from the air we breathe to the fertile soils we grow our crops on, to the potable water we drink from reservoirs and streams. All of our food and most of our goods—including wood, biofuels, fiber and medicines—come from working ecosystems. A diversity of species is important to maintain the stability and productivity of ecosystems. If species are lost, the entire system is affected and can become less reliable.
“If you were to randomly remove parts from a computer or car,” says Naeem, “everyone knows that both those systems will become less reliable or very likely stop working all together. The same thing happens to ecosystems when they lose their species.” And when ecosystems stop working, all the services they provide are threatened.
Naeem and his colleagues pioneer ways of understanding how ecosystems are affected by the loss of species. Their research on the interactions between biodiversity and ecosystem services, once a highly controversial topic, has increasingly become a critical part of the argument for the protection of species and an integral part of conservation programs. Naeem led the production of Biodiversity, Ecosystem Functioning, and Human Well-Being, an edited book released in September of 2009, which summarizes the findings of over 900 scientific studies that have shown how biodiversity loss impacts nature and our society. In this volume, ecologists, agronomists and economists show clearly why a sustainable future depends on the world remaining rich in biodiversity.
Promoting the preservation and use of biodiversity for achieving sustainable development is one of Naeem’s specialties. He co-chaired the 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Biodiversity Synthesis Report, a project originally created in 2000 by the United Nations secretary-general, Kofi Annan, to evaluate the consequences of ecological change and provide a scientific basis for sustainable development. He also leads two research coordinating networks funded by the National Foundation for Science: BioMERGE (Biotic Mechanisms of Ecosystem Regulation in the Global Environment), which is dedicated to fostering the merger of the study of biodiversity with the study of ecosystem processes, and TraitNet, which seeks to advance biodiversity research by designing a global database of how species influence ecosystem processes that will be accessible to researchers around the world.
With over one hundred publications to his name, Naeem’s research includes studies of plants, animals and microorganisms in terrestrial, freshwater and marine ecosystems. His current work, in collaboration with many others, examines the consequences of biodiversity loss in Black Rock Forest in New York, the environmental implications of declining diversity in the Inner Mongolian grassland in China and the importance of agro-biodiversity in farms of the rural poor in Africa. His research at the Earth Institute is part of Translinks, a five-year Wildlife Conservation Society project that promotes economic growth in poverty-stricken regions around the world by linking development, governance and natural resource conservation to alleviate poverty.
As the director of science at CERC, Naeem co-leads a consortium that includes the American Museum of Natural History, the New York Botanical Garden, the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Wildlife Trust. CERC seeks to build environmental leadership through education and training both inside and outside of Columbia University. Its programs include educator training for K-12 teachers and classes for community members who have an interest in sustainability issues.
Acting as the current department chair and professor of ecology in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology (E3B), Naeem was recognized in 2008 as a Lenfest Distinguished Columbia Faculty for his excellence as a teacher-scholar. Naeem’s innovation in ecology research has also earned him recognition outside of academia. The recipient of both the Buell and Mercer awards from the Ecological Society of America, he was honored with an Aldo Leopold Leadership Fellowship in 2001,which promotes leadership, communication, public service and the development of effective, science-based policy in the environmental sciences.
Naeem earned his M.A. and Ph.D. in zoology from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1990 and was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Michigan, the University of Copenhagen and the Imperial College of London. He served on the faculties of the University of Minnesota and the University of Washington before joining Columbia University in 2003. Now a member of the recently formed Earth Institute Faculty, his teaching and research will contribute significantly to making biodiversity an important part of the Earth Institute’s overall mission to achieve sustainable development.