Are we sleepwalking toward possible catastrophe?

Fr. Seán McDonagh, SSC | October 25, 2010 Print

If one were to judge by the pronouncements of politicians, economists and media attention, it would appear that we love money more than life. Since the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008, a huge amount of public discourse has focused on the collapse of other financial institutions, as well as the perilous state of the public finances in many countries.  Most people would agree that these are serious issues, but history tells us that economies recover and fiscal deficits can be bridged.  However, when we overshoot the capacity of the planet to meet our needs by 50 percent, the damage to the web of life is permanent.

This is exactly what we are doing. In September this year, in preparation for the UN Conference on Biodiversity, which is currently taking place in Nagoya, Japan, scientists from the Botanic Gardens at Kew, the Natural History Museum in London and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature released a crucial study which ought to have received extensive news coverage, but, in fact, it was almost ignored.  They stated that one in five of the world’s species of plants, estimated to be around 380,000, is threatened with extinction within this century because of human activity. One of the reasons for this indifference is that many people do not know what biodiversity means and how it is crucial for the well-being of life on earth, including human life.

A study commissioned by the Heritage Council in Ireland in April 2010, found that only 18 per cent of those surveyed knew what the word biodiversity meant.[1] Only 13 per cent of those interviewed felt that they would be adversely affected by a loss of biodiversity.  Whether people realize it or not, plant diversity is extremely important and needs to be protected.  According to Stephen Hopper the director of Kew Gardens, plants are the basis of all life on earth, providing clean air, water, food and fuel. All animal and bird life depends on them, and so do we.”[2] Humans have lived for tens of thousands of years without money. We could not live without plants.

The World Wide Fund for Nature also prepared a document for the UN Conference on Biodiversity, called the Living Planet Report 2010: Biodiversity, biocapacity and development. It too makes sobering reading, nearly a quarter of all mammal species,  a third of amphibians and one third of flowering species are threatened with extinction within this century, unless radical remedial action is taken in the next five to ten years.  The report uses the Ecological Footprint indicator which calculates the biologically productive land and water required to provide the renewable resources which people need.  Based on data from 2007, the human ecological footprint overshot the biologically regenerative capacity of the Earth by 50 percent.

This is a much more serious deficit than any financial deficit. Ending this ecological overshoot before we do more irreversible damage to the biosphere should be the most important priority for countries and the world as a whole.  Yet, the Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Biodiversity has received very little media coverage.  At the opening ceremony, Ahmed Djoghlaf, Executive Secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity told the 16,000 participants who had gathered from across the world, that they are called to address the unprecedented loss of biodiversity seriously compounded by global warming.  He stated that “if we allow current trends to continue we shall soon reach a tipping point with irreversible and irreparable damage to the capacity of the planet to sustain life on Earth. The report warns that the status of biodiversity for the next million years will be determined by the action or inaction, of one species – human beings.”[3]

The destruction of species is not just an issue for biology; it also has deep religious significance. As one species after another is pushed over the precipice of extinction, the unique way that species has of imaging the divine life is lost forever. St. Bonaventure used the image of a stain-glass window to capture this idea. “As a ray of sun light entering through a window is coloured in different ways according to the different colours of the various parts, so the divine ray shines forth in each and every creature in different ways and in different properties.”[1]

[1] Denis Edwards, “Theological Foundations for Ecological Praxis,” in Ecotheology, Sheffield Academic Press, 1998, page 130


[1] Seán Mac Connell, “Survey reveals low awareness of biodiversity,” The Irish Times, May 20th 2010, page 3.

[2] “A fifth of world’s plant species at risk of extinction,” Irish Times, September 30th 2010.

[3] http://www.cbd.int/doc/speech/2010/sp-2010-10-18-cop10-en.pd

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