Overconsumption a threat to creation

Guest post: Dr. Peter Raven of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences reflects on Laudato Si' in light of current ecological indicators

In the second chapter of Genesis, God calls on man to care for and preserve creation, the living world that supports us all. The pressures on the Earth are so great now, however, that we are destroying creation and with it the possibility of carrying forward our civilization. In order to reverse the process, we must come to our senses.

A bit of a historical review will be helpful in putting our current dilemma into context.

We now know that humans have existed on Earth for at least 2.2 million years, a long time but short in the 4.54 billion year history of our planet and the 3-billion-plus year history of life here. It was only about 12,000 years ago when our ancestors began to cultivate specific crop plants for food, and within 2,000 years those crops had become a mainstay for people who built up villages, towns, and cities because they had access to this new source of food. They no longer had to gather good continuously, living in small bands, while moving from place to place.

At the time that crops became fundamentally important to our ancestors, there were only about one million of us on the entire planet—something like 100,000 in Europe. Clearly our impact on the living systems of the planet was much less than it is now.

A growing impact

Our numbers swelled and we invented written language about 5,000 years ago, building all the aspects of civilization along the way and all the specialized professions that we take for granted. Our population did not reach one billion people until Napoleonic times, early in the 19th century, and it has grown rapidly over the 200 years subsequently.

There are now 7.3 billion of us, growing by 220,000 net each day, and seeking ever-higher levels of consumption. In fact, there are now three people in the world for every one when I was born.

The Global Footprint Network estimates that globally we are using some 156% of our sustainable productivity, so that by August of each year we have exhausted what is renewable and are digging into our principal, so to speak.

About half of us are malnourished with respect to at least one essential nutrient, lack sanitary facilities, and live on less than $1.50 per day. An estimated 850 million have received too little food when growing up that their brains and bodies could not develop properly. And 100 million of us are on the verge of starvation at any one time.

We are all taught that to acquire as much as we can is a necessary goal and the only way we can achieve and demonstrate success, whereas the eternal truth is that the attainment of a quiet and reflective mind and a just attitude towards our fellow man

Careful estimates of extinction rates, taking past rates into account, indicate that we are entering the sixth great extinction in the history of our planet [Science 344 (6187), 30 May 2014, and associated materials] and that we could easily lose half of all biological species by the end of this century.

Benedict XVI repeatedly stated publicly that it was immoral for a couple to have more children than they could take care of properly [Ed. note: for instance, see Caritas in Veritate, § 44]. And Pope Francis quipped that it isn’t necessary to breed like a rabbit to be a good Christian [Ed. note: see the Catechism of the Catholic Church, § 2367 - 2370]. In fact, the Catholic areas of the world are the slowest growing; the most rapidly growing are Africa together with South and Southeast Asia.

Worldwide, however, the destruction of the natural world is proceeding with unprecedented rapidity, a condition that is truly alarming for those of us who think about the continuation of life on Earth.

We depend entirely on the living world for all aspects of our life, for food, for stability against floods and erosion, for the absorption of pollutants, for many of our medicines, for beauty ... we cannot survive without it.


For that reason, Pope Francis devoted a major section of his Encyclical Laudato Si' to the question of preserving the living world and what we must do to accomplish that goal, exactly the one that was outlined in Genesis thousands of years ago. On top of our rapidly increasing numbers, we are participants in a consumerism that has swollen enormously since the full development of modern advertising in the 1920s, in line with modern principles of psychology.

We are all taught that to acquire as much as we can is a necessary goal and the only way we can achieve and demonstrate success, whereas the eternal truth is that the attainment of a quiet and reflective mind and a just attitude towards our fellow man (Matthew 25: 40) is actually the way to inner peace.

To save the living world and our very civilization, we must reject consumerism for its own sake and influence our leaders to help us move in stabilizing, not destabilizing, directions.

My father used to keep a cartoon on his wall that showed two men carrying briefcases walking out of an office building, with one saying to the other “I’m working so hard I’m killing myself, but I’m earning so much I can afford to.”

Really. More than 10,000 years ago, our ancestors, hunting through the forests and over the plains for food of any kind, shelter, protection for their children, certainly needed to accumulate and consume what they could. Modern advertising seems to be playing on the same instinctive tendencies in a world that cannot afford it. We can’t really afford to smoke: it kills us, and no amount of juggling information will change that relationship. We can’t afford to burn fuels that release greenhouse gasses, no matter how useful and productive they’ve been for us for more than two centuries. We need to get away from them as rapidly and efficiently as we can. That, I think, is really one of the major points of Laudato Si'.

It is highly significant in the face of all this confusion that Pope Francis clearly accepted the science and then talked about what we need to do.

There is no scientific dispute whatever about global warming and those who claim that there is either simply want to confuse the situation to allow commercial profit to continue for as long as possible, have maverick and untested views, or just don’t understand the facts or the way in which science operates.

It would be ludicrous if it were not so damaging to our future that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), started by Present George H.W. Bush and other world leaders to provide the best possible science in the area so that we could make the best choices going forward, is now by denialists sometimes characterized as a U.N. plot. (Surely the U.S. and other nations started the U.N. as a plot.)

Some 1,400 of the very best scientists in the world work on the sub-panels that produce the IPCC report. All of their individual reports are then scrutinized by panels of additional expert scientists and brought into line with their criticisms. Finally the reports are approved for release by the more than 100 governments that sponsor the IPCC. All of that results in the best and most accurate possible conclusions about the science that it is possible to get. If that’s a plot, then everything I don’t like is a plot. What we do about the scientific conclusions is another matter—science doesn’t tell us what we must do—but to go back and try to deny those findings is simply intellectually dishonest.

Applauding the Church's appreciation of science

It is highly significant in the face of all this confusion that Pope Francis clearly accepted the science and then talked about what we need to do.

The Pontifical Academy of Science, revived by Pius VI in 1936, provides scientific input at the Vatican on a consistent basis and the Catholic Church is the only faith that has such scientific input. The Church has been and remains on the rational side in all of the major anti-science movements that are now current: anti-evolution, anti-vaccination, anti-moon landing, anti-GMO.

The Academy, which is non-denominational, has 80 members, appointed for life; about half of them are Nobel prize winners. I have been a member since 1990, and thoroughly enjoyed helping with the analysis of scientific questions. With our sister academy, the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, we are continuing to provide input at the Vatican and hoping thereby to help build a sound and sustainable world.

Laudato Si' is a major contribution to that effort, and one of which we should all be proud.

Dr. Peter H. Raven serves on the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. He is one of the world's leading botanists and advocates of conservation and biodiversity and is President Emeritus of the Missouri Botanical Garden. A full biography can be found here.

If you like Catholic Ecology,
you’ll love…

A Printer's Choice

The sci-fi novel with a Catholic twist.

A Printer's Choice

Learn more

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.