Not far from the busy pedestrian streets in the center of Vienna, down a quiet narrow street, lies a small cobblestoned city square. Before World War II, this city neighborhood was the bustling, vibrant heart of Vienna’s Jewish Quarter, but today it is has a quiet, almost subdued feeling. Vienna’s current Jewish population is only a small fraction of what it was before the war, and the quiet feel of the square reflects this.
At one end of the square is a memorial to the thousands of Jewish individuals who lost their lives during the Holocaust. At first glance, the memorial looks like a huge square concrete block, oversized and awkwardly placed in an otherwise well-proportioned city square. As one approaches however, the details become more clear: the memorial is a library of books. But in contrast to how books are normally displayed, the books are turned inward such that the spines are in the center of the concrete block, hidden from view. Walking the perimeter of the memorial, the observer sees only the outer edges of the pages – no spines to reveal the titles or authors.
To view this memorial is thought provoking and very moving. The library symbolizes the lost stories of the Holocaust: humanity lost scientists, poets, artists, musicians, teachers – countless unique individuals who possessed knowledge, gifts, and skills that could have added to the diverse richness of humanity. A library of humanity, knowledge and gifts, hidden from view and lost forever.
The image of the Jewish Memorial and the feelings it brought forth washed over me as I read about the many ways in which the medical profession – and human health – has benefited from the natural world. Many important, life saving medicines are derived from plants and animals in nature. For example, blood pressure and diabetes medications, cancer treatments, and blood thinners all are derived from chemicals discovered within plants or animals. In addition, modern medicine has looked to the natural world for inspiration and models for many significant advances.
However, this rich and diverse fund of knowledge – this library – is disappearing at an alarming rate. Biologists warn that Earth is losing species at an unprecedented rate, such that our current era has been called “the sixth extinction.” With every lost plant or animal, humanity loses unique tools, lessons and examples that could help human health. In addition, as we lose biodiversity, we also become less able to adapt to changes in our environment, becoming handicapped in our ability to respond to new diseases.
Much of the Holocaust occurred while the world’s nations looked the other way, ignoring the unprecedented loss of life. Similarly, as species disappear on a daily basis in today’s world, most of us go about our daily life, attention turned elsewhere. Humanity can not afford to ignore this destruction of the natural world. Human health will increasingly suffer from the loss of knowledge the natural world offers, and just as countless human stories were lost during the holocaust, we will lose the stories from nature that could help us live a healthy life.
There is not a simple solution to halt our current loss of biodiversity, but we all must do what we can. Every little bit helps; we can drive less, recycle, and support laws, politicians, and businesses that value the environment, for example.
The time for action is now. The health of the natural world and the health of humans are intimately intertwined, and ultimately will enjoy or suffer the same fate.