People of Faith and the Destruction of Biodiversity

Columban missionary Fr Sean McDonagh says reading the Global Assessment Report is “a chilling experience” as it spells out the appalling damage which humans have caused to the earth during the past four decades.

The publication in Paris of the Global Assessment Report on 6 May 2019, confirmed that we are now living in the sixth largest extinction in 3.8 billion years of Earth’s history.

The 1,800-page study shows that we and future generation of species are seriously at risk, unless firm action is taken to reverse this trend. The last time such a major extinction of life happened on Earth was 65 million years ago when an asteroid crashed into the Yucatan area of Mexico.

The explosion caused such global destruction that more than half the species on earth became extinct. More than 450 scientists worked on the document over a three-year period. It is the largest and most comprehensive assessment on the health of nature ever published.

Reading the document is a chilling experience as it spells out the appalling damage which humans have caused to the earth during the past four decades. It also tells us the kind of world we are leaving for future generations. The report states that the human footprint on our planet is so large now that it is not allowing enough space for other species to exist or flourish.

The authors believe that one million species are at risk of extinction in the next two to three decades. Consequently, the annihilation of wildlife by human activity is eroding the very foundations of human civilization. The abundance of native species in most major land habitats has fallen by a fifth since 1990.

For example, frogs and amphibians have suffered a horrendous 40 percent decline. The biomass of wild animals has fallen by a staggering 82 percent.

In recent years, natural ecosystems have lost about half of their area, mainly to create farmland. During the 1980s and 1990, I watched the destruction of the tropical forests in Mindanao in the Philippines. Destroying the forest made enormous profits for rich local loggers and provided cheap timber for us in rich countries in order to build houses or furniture. It opened land for farming as the population grew.

However, because of typhoons and monsoons, good topsoil was washed away leaving barren hillsides.The report also found that the impact of the meat and dairy industry is huge. The grazing area for cattle accounts for 25 percent of the world’s ice-free land. It also accounts for 18 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Even species that humans’ value as sources of our food are also threatened.

For example, the lack of genetic diversity within species is providing less protection against diseases and environmental changes which will afford fewer options for breeding plants and animals that will adapt better able to our changing climate. The imminent extinction of the Cavendish banana is a good example of this. In the oceans, nearly a third of coral reefs around the world have been destroyed in four decades.

Incredibly, a third of marine mammals are also threatened. Overfishing is devastating the oceans. Only 3 percent of the world’s oceans are free from human pressure. Globally industrial fishing takes place on a huge scale. One third of fish populations are over-exploited.

In the encyclical, Laudato Si’ On Care For Our Common Home, Pope Francis tells us that “the earth’s resources are also being plundered because of a  short-sighted approach to the economy, commerce and production, the loss of forests and woodlands entails the  loss of species which may constitute extremely important resources in the future, not only for food but also for curing diseases and other uses.” (Ls. 32).

The Pope goes to write that “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.” (Ls 33). Pope Francis makes an extraordinary statement that “all creatures are moving forward with us and through us towards a common point of arrival, which is God.” (Ls 83).

People of faith need to educate themselves about this new teaching and become advocates for policies which protect other species. They also need to act to stem the tide of extinction.We need a Requiem to honour those creatures which are facing extinction.

This liturgy would create the space where humans could express their pain, sadness and culpability for the loss of these wonderful creatures which God has created over millions of years. The liturgy would encourage people of faith to take the destruction of biodiversity much more seriously.

Fr Sean McDonagh is a Columban missionary priest and president of An Taisce.