Human beings are looking at a staggering loss of global biodiversity as more than a million species — approximately one out of eight on the planet — are threatened with extinction due to negative human actions, according to a new United Nations report.
But the sober assessment also provides new impetus for Catholics to put into practice the care for creation envisioned by Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si (Care for Our Common Home), that should allow human beings and the natural world to thrive together.
“We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide,” stated Sir Robert Watson, the chairman of The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), which released its global consensus report after the seventh plenary session concluded May 4 in Paris. He added that there is another path, “only if we start now at every level, from local to global.”
Laudato Si, which has a chapter dedicated to biodiversity, also turned 4 years old May 24, and many Catholics have already been at work to road map a restoration of biodiversity at home and abroad.
Pope Francis stated that “all creatures are connected, each must be cherished with love and respect, for all of us as living creatures are dependent on one another.” While he called attention to both the Amazon and Congo River basins, Pope Francis stated the obligation to care for creation’s biodiversity was universal and extended into people’s own backyards.
“Each area is responsible for the care of this family,” the Pope stated. He called on people to work toward “developing programs and strategies of protection with particular care for safeguarding species heading towards extinction.”
“The common theme in Laudato Si is ‘everything is connected,’ and the U.N. biodiversity report really shows that,” Ricardo Simmonds, environmental justice program consultant for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told the Register.
The U.N. report lists the top drivers of biodiversity loss in descending order as “changes in land and sea use,” “direct exploitation of organisms,” “climate change,” “pollution” and “invasive alien species.”
A Global Challenge
One of the world’s foremost authorities on extinction and how to prevent it, Stuart Pimm, professor of conservation ecology at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment, told the Register that the U.N. report is “serious” and represents a “global consensus of more than a thousand people” that species extinction is happening at far faster levels than such events would naturally. But he does have “hope” that people can take action.
Biodiversity is a global challenge, he said, that affects not only the Amazon. Americans, he said, need to realize many threatened species are concentrated in Hawaii, Florida and the southeastern U.S.
Pimm, who is not Catholic, added that Laudato Si was both good on the science and a great place to start for addressing the biodiversity crisis.
“We need to change our mindset about how we think about the world,” he said. As one example, Pimm pointed out that while marine life faces serious challenges from the vast amounts of plastic garbage that is circulating the oceans, marine ecosystems face an even graver threat from commercial fishing fleets of industrial nations that have decimated the populations of most of the top predators in the sea, such as sharks and tunas.
“We like big, tasty fish, and we’re harvesting them to extinction,” Pimm said.
Without these predators, other fish populations explode, then collapse, and what remains is generally marine life of a size unsuitable for human consumption, putting at risk the livelihoods of traditional fishing communities in developing countries.
Despite this bad news, though, Pimm said there is a “surprising amount of good news” and a “huge amount of progress.” Human beings have shown in the past they can change their ways and help species come back. He said an animal threatened with extinction that makes it on the “U.S. Endangered Species List” has a 99% chance of survival.
“We’ve brought a lot of species back,” Pimm said.
Pimm said the rich nations, which supply the “million-dollar boats” capable of this scale of overfishing, also have the power to help nature rest and replenish. Without waiting for an international agreement, most nations could impose restrictions on commercial fishing within their 200-mile economic exclusion zone and allow the top predators to bounce back.
On land, too, nature struggles to adapt to human environments. Urban sprawl has carved up the range animals need — Pimm pointed out that highways bisect a great deal of wildlife. However, the construction of “wildlife overpasses” or “wildpasses,” is helping reconnect areas needed to sustain elk, bear and other animal populations that require a large range. The wildpasses, which are prevalent in Europe and have just started to be built in the U.S., also make human travel on the road safer, allowing animals (and even human beings) to cross highways without the risk of getting struck by a vehicle.
Taking Catholic Action
Pope Francis’ teaching in Laudato Si builds on the moral framework on human ecology set forth by Benedict XVI in Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth). Benedict warned against the “superdevelopment” of rich nations being underpinned by “moral underdevelopment” and then exported to poorer, developing nations.
“The way humanity treats the environment influences the way it treats itself, and vice versa,” Benedict taught, saying the Church had a responsibility to defend creation.
“[S]he must defend not only earth, water and air as gifts of creation that belong to everyone. She must above all protect mankind from self-destruction,” he said.
The consumptive lifestyle of rich nations is both driving pollution and exporting this lifestyle (and its consequences) to other countries. A 2015 Oxfam report indicated that the richest 10% account for half of the world’s carbon emissions. The poorest 50% account for just 10% of carbon emissions.
“This is more about the way the wealthy are living rather than having too many people on the planet,” Simmonds said. “There’s a great disparity between the use of the wealthy and the footprint of those who have less money.”
Developing countries are starting to realize this lifestyle is unsustainable and beginning to backtrack. Malaysia became the most recent country to announce it would be sending plastic waste back to the U.S. and Europe so they can deal with the consequences themselves. Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte colorfully threatened to “declare war” on Canada for missing a May 15 deadline to take back its trash.
According to data collected by the University of Oxford, while the U.S. is the second-largest global producer of plastic waste (behind China), its waste-management practices actually mitigate a lot of pollution flowing into rivers and oceans. Part of that strategy has included exporting plastics for recycling to other countries. But many Southeast Asian countries, with their long coastlines, are overwhelmed with plastic waste. Because they cannot contain it, they contribute to 60% of the plastics polluting the world’s oceans.
China likewise has also told the U.S. and Europe that they will no longer accept any more plastic waste imports for recycling. China accounts for one-third of the global plastic pollution, and the South China Morning Post reported its unregulated recycling business was generating other toxic forms of pollution entering the environment.
“We need to think, ‘How are we living our lives?’” Simmonds said. “That is the call to conscience and message of Laudato Si.”
Adrian Flores, the associate director of the Office of Life, Justice and Peace for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, told the Register that the archdiocese is exploring ways to care for creation. Flores pointed out that Los Angeles’ pollution problems are deeply linked to human degradation, as Francis and Benedict have taught. A major contributor to the garbage that flows into the ocean from the Los Angeles River comes from the waste left by the homeless.
The archdiocese has listed care-for-creation resources on its website for individuals, parishes and communities to access, and they are holding more discussions with other groups to find solutions.
Getting to a culture that loves and restores global biodiversity is a project that begins literally in people’s backyards, explained Bill Jacobs, executive director of the St. Kateri Conservation Center and an ecologist with 25 years’ experience.
Jacobs, who was the interim director of the St. Kateri Tekakwitha Shrine in Fonda, New York, said God must be part of the conversation on biodiversity, because the key to restoring biodiversity is “restoring relationships” between humanity and creation and the God who created all.
The St. Kateri Conservation Center has a “St. Kateri Habitat” program that invites people to restore natural habitats at their homes, in their parishes and in their local communities. Planting native trees and plants in backyards and roadsides can make “little oases” to support biodiversity.
Jacobs said the more people support biodiversity in their own backyards, the more it changes their attitude toward other actions.
Families that reduce their lawns by giving more space to wildflowers can also reduce the amount of fertilizer and weed killer, which takes a toll on native plants and insects, and provide pollination habitats for bees and other insects.
“It seems like a small thing, but it gets people thinking,” he said.
Farms, he added, can mitigate fertilizer runoff through pursuing best land management practices, using a minimum amount of organic fertilizers as needed, and creating wildlife habitats that can catch run-off before it enters into waterways.
Fertilizer runoff is a major challenge to biodiversity, Jacobs explained. Many lakes and waterways are seeing toxic algae blooms due to fertilizer runoff. This greatly weakens an ecosystem and can wipe out native species once invasive species are introduced (sometimes by people who buy exotic pets and then release them into the wild when they get tired of them).
Officials in the Great Lakes are panicked about the expansion of Asian carp into the Great Lakes, which they fear could wipe out a large number of native species still rebounding in the wake of efforts to clean up the industrial pollution of the lakes. And the ecosystem is seeing toxic algae blooms, harmful to human beings and wildlife, as a result of raw sewage and fertilizer flowing from Ohio’s factory-farms into Lake Erie.
Working With Indigenous Peoples
St. Kateri Conservation Center calls itself a “faith-based land trust.” It is working with religious orders and landowners to put what it calls “conservation easements” into the deeds to their land, so they can remain preserved habitats. It also provides a way to make sure the land retains its religious character, such as any shrines or statues built on the landscape.
But preserving or restoring biodiversity also presents an opportunity to work with indigenous peoples. The St. Kateri Conservation Center is looking to enter into strategic partnerships with Native American communities and nations. Duke University’s Pimm also emphasized that working with biodiversity required the involvement of native peoples who have several thousand years of experience-based wisdom in maintaining habitats they depend on for their own thriving.
The USCCB’s Simmonds agreed the Church should work with indigenous peoples, as Pope Francis emphasized, “for the sake of the forests and biodiversity there, because they are the best custodians.”
The U.S. federal park model, he indicated, envisions “pristine wilderness” as having no people in it. Native people in the U.S., who formerly inhabited and took care of these lands, are left with reservations that have too small a land-base to sustain traditional lifestyles and land management. Simmonds explained this is in contrast to South America, where federal parks are vast tracts of land cared for and maintained by indigenous people, living their traditional way of life.
But researchers are recognizing that the indigenous people have a vital role in maintaining forest biodiversity. In the face of multiple horrific wildfires in the Western U.S. and California, researchers are studying how Native American peoples managed forests, preventing the monster wildfires that would otherwise have wiped out their communities as well as wildlife.
For the U.S. Church, following the advice of Pope Francis, working with native nations and communities may not only help heal historic injustices, but also prove to be the linchpin to care for creation effectively.
“Look, if we want to protect the forests, then we have to really protect and allow indigenous peoples to live their lifestyle — that’s the best way to do this,” Simmonds said. “And they can teach us in our superdeveloped culture how to live in harmony with nature. There are so many lessons we can learn.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.