Thoughts on Laudato si', Part 7: We Have No Such Right

July 23, 2015

Extinction happens; it’s part of nature. The vast majority of species that have lived on earth are now gone. Throughout Earth’s history, the normal rate of extinction has been one species per million a year. But now we’re “in the midst of the Earth’s sixth mass extinction crisis,” and it has been estimated “that 30,000 species per year (or three species per hour) are being driven to extinction.” [1] As a result, “global biodiversity itself is being lost at an alarming rate.” [2]    

The earth has gone through mass extinctions before, to be sure, but this one is different. It is not being driven by Earth’s physical processes, but by the activity of one species: human beings. And the problem is serious. Scientists have “identified the maintenance of biodiversity - the variety of plant and animal species and their habitats - as critical to human well-being; they rate biodiversity loss as a more serious environmental problem than the depletion of the ozone layer, global warming, or pollution and contamination.” [3]  

The most significant drivers of biodiversity loss are habitat change, climate change, invasive alien species, overexploitation, and pollution [4], all of them human created problems. And the implications are immense. Loss of biodiversity adversely affects greenhouse gas emissions; “8% of global emissions derive from tropical deforestation.” “Loss of ecosystems such as salt marshes, mangroves, and coral reefs increases vulnerability to sea level rise and storms and exacerbates natural disaster impacts. Functioning coastal wetlands could have reduced the impact of Hurricane Katrina, estimated at $150 billion.” Moreover, reduction in “biodiversity can result in a loss of known and undiscovered chemicals valuable to human health. Chemical compounds such as quinine, antibiotics including erythromycin and neomycin, and taxol (a cancer treatment) are important pharmaceutical agents derived from other life forms.” It impairs “the ability of the environment to recover from natural and human-induced disasters,” destroys “natural systems that purify the world's air and water,” increases “flooding, drought, and other environmental disasters,” damages “agriculture, fisheries, and food production,” diminishes “the ability to control infectious diseases,” and substantially contributes “to the degradation of the world’s economies, thereby weakening the social and political stability of nations across the globe.” 

Of course, it is the poor who experience the worst impact of biodiversity loss. “Many aspects of biodiversity decline have a disproportionate impact on poor people. The decline in fish populations, for example, has major implications for artisanal fishers and the communities that depend on fish as an important source of protein. As dryland resources are degraded, it is the poor and vulnerable who suffer the most.” [5] 

There are actions that can be taken to address this problem, but, unfortunately, as Pope Francis points out in Laudato si’, caring “for ecosystems demands far-sightedness, since no one looking for quick and easy profit is truly interested in their preservation. But the cost of the damage caused by such selfish lack of concern is much greater than the economic benefits to be obtained. Where certain species are destroyed or seriously harmed, the values involved are incalculable. We can be silent witnesses to terrible injustices if we think that we can obtain significant benefits by making the rest of humanity, present and future, pay the extremely high costs of environmental deterioration.” [6] 

It is true that “countries have made significant progress in establishing sanctuaries on land and in the oceans where any human intervention is prohibited which might modify their features or alter their original structures,” and international agencies and civil society organizations are drawing “public attention to these issues and” offering “critical cooperation, employing legitimate means of pressure, to ensure that each government carries out its proper and inalienable responsibility to preserve its country’s environment and natural resources, without capitulating to spurious local or international interests.” But greater “investment needs to be made in research aimed at understanding more fully the functioning of ecosystems and adequately analyzing the different variables associated with any significant modification of the environment.” Programs and strategies need to be developed, “with particular care for safeguarding species heading towards extinction.”

While the discussion here has thus far been about the impact of biodiversity loss on human beings, there is even more to be considered. As the Holy Father tells us, it is not enough “to think of different species merely as potential ‘resources’ to be exploited, while overlooking the fact that they have value in themselves. Each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost for ever. The great majority become extinct for reasons related to human activity. Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us. We have no such right.”  

Jack Quirk