'Let the Earth bring forth living creatures ...'

January 2009

Our world and its myriad life forms are viewed as having infinite, if ineffable, value. And so it’s no surprise that present-day research is showing that biological diversity is critical for sustaining you, me and the rest of the human race. The bad news is that the past few decades have seen some of the fastest rates of species extinction ever experienced—rates that are now 100 to 1,000 times faster than the natural losses that have been typical throughout Earth’s history.

If you think this is an attempt by reckless ecologists to panic us, you should talk to Dr. Brad Cardinale, of the Department of Ecology, Evolution & Marine Biology at University of California, Santa Barbara. Ten years ago he began summarizing the available research, expecting to show that fears about extinction were overstated. He suspected that conservation efforts would be more fruitful if they focused on the best or most productive species rather than all of them. Today he is sounding an alarm that the data indicate otherwise.

“It appears that nature is much like a sports team,” Dr. Cardinale noted in a recent interview with the Rhode Island Catholic. “Every great team has a few standout players that help them win big games. But if your standout players don’t have a cast of supporting players, your team will get crushed. In the same way, nature needs both its standout species and supporting species. Each makes a unique contribution to the productivity and sustainability of the planet.”

What Dr. Cardinale and his colleagues are finding is that Earth’s food production, pollution mitigation and disease control—all of which are necessary for life—falter as species after species disappear. Such sobering conclusions come not from a mere handful of studies. They derive from a synthesis of 141 studies that were conducted over decades. More alarming is that this research was not limited to the effects of slashed wastelands that had once been tropical rainforests. Much of this work focused on ordinary backyard streams, fields and even deserts in developed Western nations like America.

The likely culprit in this business of extinction is, you guessed it, us. The human population is increasing rapidly, and so is the divide between rich and poor. As a result, our species now occupies half of Earth’s inhabitable land surface, consumes more than half of all freshwater, and ingests a little less than half of all available food. This means that the millions of other species on Earth must survive on less than half of all the planet’s space, food and water. Tragically, some people read such statistics and call for controls on population growth through artificial birth control or, as China has seen, forced abortions. However, Dr. Cardinale suggests that the key to curbing population’s impact on extinction involves reducing poverty—which suggests that the Church’s longtime and ongoing efforts aimed at this end may have secondary ecological benefits that actually help increase food supplies and lets nature combat illness.

Quelling extinction’s hyper-acceleration also requires a better understanding of terrestrial ecology—here one hopes that monies aimed at understanding planet Earth might soon match the billions of dollars expended to study the other planets of our solar system. “It appears that society and government are more interested in exploring other planets than in understanding how to live sustainably on our own,” Dr. Cardinale says.

Without better earth sciences, reducing greenhouse gases and radically addressing human poverty, our planet’s ecology—and we humans—will suffer. How badly? While Dr. Cardinale avoids making “doomsday predictions,” he believes that within five to 10 years the scientific community will be able to calculate how humanity will be impacted by what may be a 50 percent loss of all known species during the next century.

The news will likely not be good. For faithful readers of Genesis this makes sense. If in the beginning God saw fit to surround humanity with all manner of diverse life forms, we would do well to assume that we can’t extinguish this diversity without suffering evil. The question is, now that it’s becoming clear what damage we’re causing, what shall we—as a people of faith—do to prevent it?

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About the Blog

Catholic Ecology posts my regular column in the Rhode Island Catholic, as well as scientific and theological commentary about the latest eco-news, both within and outside of the Catholic Church. What is contained herein is but one person's attempt to teach and defend the Church's teachings - ecological and otherwise. As such, I offer all contents of this blog for approval of the bishops of the Church. It is my hope that nothing herein will lead anyone astray from truth.