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Ecology and Habitats (an Environmental Issue)


Ecology is the study of the relationship between plants and animals (including humans) and their environment. Habitats are the places where plants and animals (including humans) live and where they can acquire adequate food, water, shelter and living space. Every living thing has evolved and adapted to a specific range of environments where it is best capable of surviving and reproducing.

Every living thing needs to have the right balance and mix of temperatures, water and food sources, which may be found in a specific zone such as tropical, temperate, frigid or desert. Some living things can live in a greater diversity of environments than others, but there are always limits. For instance, a plant or animal adapted to living in a tropical rain forest would most likely perish in the desert or in the arctic.

Over time, habitats change due to shifts in their climate, to adaptations made by the local plants and animals, and to migrations of foreign plants and animals into the area. These habitat changes will force the local plants and animals to adapt, to migrate, or to die out.

The ability of a species to adapt boils down to the consequences of genetic mutation. Some mutations can benefit individuals by giving them an advantage that increases their ability to survive or to produce more offspring. Other mutations can make individuals less fit and less likely to survive.

Many other mutations may not be particularly detrimental or beneficial at the present time but may be more beneficial or less beneficial at some time in the future. This may be due to habitat change or a migration to a new habitat. For instance, a mutation that makes individuals better adapted to the cold would be a benefit if their habitat became colder but might be a detriment if it became hotter.

The greater the number of different mutations that exist within a population the greater its genetic diversity. When the genetic diversity within a population is larger and has a greater mix of types of mutations, the better chance that population can survive changes in its habitat, and the higher the likelihood that their decedents will be healthy and remain viable. Therefore, there needs to be enough individuals in each population with the right combination of mutations for that population to remain healthy and to adapt to change.

In general, a species has a better chance of having the needed genetic diversity when it has a larger breeding population. At a minimum, this generally means that each species needs at least a couple of hundred members living within the same habitat. In addition, the habitat must cover a large enough contiguous area to support this size population.

Generally, the larger a plant or animal is, the larger its habitat must be. For some large predators, a habitat may need to be many square miles per individual. Therefore, many habitats may need to encompass several hundred square miles to maintain the health and survival of their inhabitants. In addition, the larger a habitat is the more likely that all the plants and animals within it will be able to do more than just survive.

Every habitat has at least one and usually several overlapping food chains. To remain healthy, a food chain must have a sufficiently diverse and balanced mix of plants and animals. Usually, a variety of plants make up the bottom of a food chain. The plants will be eaten by herbivores, fungi and insects. Other animals and insects may eat other smaller animals. At the top of the food chain will be the carnivores. Even the carnivores will eventually end up being food for various insects and fertilizer for the plants.

Any significant disruption in the population of any of the plants and animals in a food chain could do serious harm to or even destroy the viability of other species and the habitat itself. I talked in more detail about this in a previous section on overpopulation.

In addition, within any given habitat, there may be many smaller mini habitats. These may contain unique combinations of plants and animals and one or more plants or animals that exist nowhere else on Earth. The loss of even one of these plants or animals has the potential to cause a ripple effect throughout many different habitats that could harm many other living things (including humans).


The world’s various habitats not only provide homes for many different living things, but they provide mankind with many economic and health benefits. For instance, they provide us with food, medicine and scientific understanding, and they help to filter pollution out of the air and water. We can also enjoy them for their beauty and recreational possibilities. In addition, we are constantly finding new things from the various plants and animals that we find in many different habitats that have the potential to better our lives.

We humans can adapt our homes and ourselves to living in a wide range of different environments. With the use of our tools and our technology, we can survive over a wide range of values for environmental factors such as temperature, humidity and pressure. We have even found ways to live in places that lack such necessities as water, food, and even air.

Of course, even when we have the tools and technology, there are still a few places where we choose not to live or where it is generally not economically feasible to live. For instance, there are few of us who would choose to live at the North or South Pole, and, although we have talked about how great it would be to have underwater cities, it has proven to be too expensive to try to live there, at least so far.

Because of our adaptability, we have been able to spread out over most of the Earth and taken over or destroyed most of the world’s natural habitats. Our planet has already lost countless habitats and countless species of plants and animals, including many that went extinct before we even knew of their existence. We may never know the full extent of this loss or the good that might have come from some of these extinct species, but we can try to protect those that are left.

It is in the best interest of all living things (including humans) to maintain and to restore many different types of habitats where an abundant supply of diverse plants and animals can live. Someday, we may find that one of these habitats harbors a plant or an animal that is vital to our survival. Therefore, to ensure our own future survival, we need to update our laws and our taxes so that we have the incentive to protect as many different habitats in as many different locations as possible.

Land Use

To the early American settlers, there must have seemed like an endless expanse of land in the new world, but land is a limited resource that we are rapidly using up. Obviously, we need places to live, but should we be taking away so much land from the plants and animals with whom we share this world? We have already taken away so much open space that many habitats have been destroyed and many plants and animals have gone extinct or are endangered.

I saw a report that said that 28 percent of the world’s land was still open space. First off, that means that we have already taken 72 percent of the land from nature. In addition, we are still using much of what we call open space for things such as camping, hiking, hunting, or logging. We have also split up much of this open space into parcels too small to be considered viable habitats for most plants and animals. For instance, even our national forests contain towns and camp sites, are crisscrossed with roads and hiking trails, and are often used for logging and mining.

In addition, we are losing more open space to development every day. The only thing that may save some open space is that we consider it too dry, mountainous or swampy, or it has some other quality that is less than desirable for human use, which may also make it a poor habitat for many other plants and animals.

First, let’s think about how upset and angry we would be if the government took our homes away from us to build a new highway onramp. Now, let’s think about how the same thing is true for the plants and the animals that live on the land that we take from them to build our homes, offices and shopping malls.

Of course, when the government takes our home, they will at least compensate us for the value of our home, which means we should be able to afford to buy a new home. For plants and animals, the story is quite different. Some animals may be able to find a new place to live, if there is any place left for them to go, but we end up killing most of the plants.

Each year in the United States, over 2 million acres of land (larger than Rhode Island and Delaware combined) are lost to development. Although this may only be about one percent of our land being lost each decade, it is rapidly adding up to the loss of a lot of our natural habitats. Just think about this. The development of the next acre of land could be what tips the balance within that habitat. Instead of the habitat remaining large enough to support a healthy mix of plants and animals, it loses critical plants or animals, which sets it on a path towards its destruction.

In addition, once land has been developed, it is extremely difficult to restore it to being a healthy habitat. Today, wetlands are supposed to be protected, but we are allowing developers to destroy vital healthy wetlands and to replace them with new wetlands that they create. Unfortunately, these new wetlands do not contain the needed diversity and mix of plants and animals that true wetlands have, so they will never truly be able to replace what was lost.

Here in the United States, we are also threatening our own human habitat. With our increasing population, suburban sprawl has not only been eating into our open spaces and natural habitats, but also into our farmlands. It was not too long ago that our nation was a big net exporter of food, but we are now close to turning into a net importer of food. With our current population expected to increase by about 10 percent each decade and with the continued loss of farmland to suburban sprawl, we could soon start to become dependent on food imports.

With a growing population, one would think that we would be increasing the amount of land used for farming. Unfortunately, our total amount of farmland has been decreasing. In 1949, farmland made up more than 51 percent of our total land, but today it makes up less than 41 percent. With very little open space left that could be used for farming, the only real way to increase our farmland would be to start converting the land taken over by suburban sprawl back into farmland. Of course, other than packing more of us into less space, the only real way for us to be able to reverse suburban sprawl would be to stop and then to reverse our population growth.

Land Sharing

We also must remember that we need to share the land with our fellow plants and animals. At the bare minimum, it would seem only fair to leave at least half the land as open space and natural habitats for them. Their half should not be just the half that we do not want, nor should it include any of our farm or park land. We cannot consider the land that we use to be part of a truly natural habitat, since we usually end up forcing out all but a few of the plants and animals that would have lived there. To ensure true diversity, we need to leave half of every possible habitat, whether it is forest, desert, mountain, plain, meadow or swamp, in its natural state.

These natural habitats also need to be sufficiently large and contiguous enough to support diverse communities of plants and animals. In addition, we need to keep these areas free of roads, since a road could cause a habitat to be split into two smaller and separate areas that could no longer support some of the larger animals, who would then be threatened with extinction.

Currently, our laws do not really protect our farms and the habitats needed by plants and animals. Low taxes on land usage and lax zoning laws encourage us to build and to pave over more and more land with homes, offices, roads and parking lots instead of leaving some land as open space. Our taxes spread out the cost of the new roads, bridges and infrastructure to everyone, so that those of us who do not use them end up paying the price for those of us who do.

Zoning Changes

Most land is zoned for one purpose or another. How the land is zoned can affect how much it is worth. Land zoned for industrial or commercial use may be more valuable than land zoned for residential use, which may be more valuable than land zoned for agricultural use. For instance, a person who can get their farmland rezoned to be residential or commercial can make a lot more money when selling the property than if it remained zoned as agricultural. For this reason, a lot of our farmlands, pastures and open spaces are being rezoned and lost to suburbs, office parks and malls.

To help save our farmlands, pastures and open areas, we need to fix our zoning laws so that it is more expensive to get certain zoning changes. For instance, if a request to rezone some farmland from agricultural to residential was granted, then the owner would need to pay a fee equal to or more than the increased appraised value of the land. By removing some of the profit incentive, less land would be developed. In addition, it is important that these changes be made at the national level, or at least the state level, since trying to get every county, city or town to enact the same zoning changes would be nearly impossible.

Property Taxes

We want to discourage suburban sprawl and to encourage leaving more open space and farmland. Therefore, instead of taxes being based on just the assessed value of a property, we should base them more on how each acre of land is used. There would be low or no taxes on open space. Land used for farming or ranching would be taxed at a moderate rate. There would be high taxes for land that is mined or built on. The more land that is covered over by buildings, driveways, parking lots and roads, the higher the taxes would be. Since larger parcels of open space are better for plant and animal habitats, we also want to have a sliding scale of taxes so that smaller parcels of open space are taxed at higher rates than larger parcels.

We also want to encourage more efficient use of the land that we do build on. Therefore, the property taxes should be based much more heavily on the amount of land that is used and less on the value of the building or how many stories the building has. This means that any building that covers one acre of land would be taxed at pretty much the same rate whether it was a one-story building, a five-story building or a ten-story building. Of course, a taller building may need more in the way of public utilities and the owner should be charged for them, but that should be separate from the property tax rate.

In addition, we want to reduce how much land is covered over with roads. A few roads within and between towns and cities would be designated as main roads, which are necessary. All other roads would be considered access roads, and our property taxes should include a component to cover them.

First, using the tax rate for land that is covered over, compute the total amount of taxes for the access roads. Then, for each building, compute how many acres of land are covered over by the roads leading up to it. Add up the acres for all the buildings and divide it into the total tax amount to get the access road tax rate. Finally, use the access road tax rate to come up with the tax for each building. The fewer buildings on an access road, the higher the tax rate would be. The farther a building is from the main road, the higher the taxes would be. This would encourage building more buildings near main roads and discourage building in new areas.

If land is covered over by a building, it is better that the property be kept in use and in good condition than for it to be abandoned or in disrepair. This is because this would help to maintain the property values throughout the community and encourage reusing existing buildings instead of using empty land to put up new buildings. Therefore, there should be higher property taxes on buildings that are abandoned or rundown than for buildings that are occupied or in good shape.

For instance, a slum lord can currently make more money by not fixing up their buildings. Yes, they may be fined for some code violations, but that does not seem to be enough of an encouragement for them to fix up their buildings. On the other hand, if their property taxes could possibly double or triple by having a rundown building, then it would be in their financial interest to fix up their buildings. This would also apply to abandoned buildings. In this way, landlords would need to keep their buildings in good condition, tear them down or risk being hit with much higher property taxes.

Next Section

Climate Change - Reducing our impact on the environment to prevent extreme climatic changes.

Last Updated:
Thursday, January 11, 2024
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