A report has been released in the last few days from scientists in American universities Princeton, Harvard and Berkley providing evidence for what has long been feared in the biological world: that we have entered the planet’s sixth period of mass extinction. Apart from a smaller-scale mega-faunal extinction at the end of the last ice-age – goodbye giant sloths and woolly mammoths – the last general mass extinction we suffered was 65 million years ago, the end of the age of the dinosaurs. They have suggested that extinction rates are currently 114 times faster than the baseline non-extinction rate seen in the fossil records, likely due to climate change, pollution and deforestation. Aside from all the fluffy, crawly and jumpy species we’ve put at risk, we as humans aren’t exempt from it either. We may very well be driving ourselves into a human extinction event.
It’s sobering stuff. I’ve sat through enough conservation lectures that I’ve annotated: “In summary: DOOM”, to get that we’re not exactly on the right trajectory in terms of saving the planet. But what can I do? I’m one person, with very little influence, hugely aware of the many seemingly unstoppable factors conspiring against this situation.
This week has also seen the release of the Pope’s encyclical Laudato si: on care for our common home, in which he outlines the science behind the current rate of climate change, the theology behind caring for the planet, the impact on our poorest and most vulnerable, and a unified call for cultural revolution. It should come as no surprise this is something Pope Francis is passionate about: his namesake, Francis of Assisi, is “the patron saint of all who study and work in the area of ecology, and he is also much loved by non-Christians. He was particularly concerned for God’s creation and for the poor and outcast.” (Laudato si, point 10.)
Pope Francis is certainly maintaining that legacy. One of the things I’m most excited about with this encyclical is the clout that this Pope has. He has earned the trust and respect of much of the wider Church, as well as much of the wider world. People of all faiths and none appreciate Pope Francis and his bold statements. Laudato si, which means ‘praise be to you’, is certainly one of those. This encyclical, while officially part of the teaching of the Catholic Church, is not addressed to Catholics, nor just to the Christian Church: it is addressed at everyone, and many of them seem to be listening.
When it comes to matters as huge and potentially catastrophic as these, it’s not enough for only a few small voices alone to shout – although shout they must, because who knows who might hear. Big issues need big voices, because big voices get heard. I’m so pleased that Pope Francis, who has perhaps one of the loudest voices and highest platforms the world offers, has taken it upon himself to speak out about such an important issue.
The extinction paper states: “Averting a dramatic decay of biodiversity and the subsequent loss of ecosystem services is still possible through intensified conservation efforts, but that window of opportunity is rapidly closing.” The Pope appeals “for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet. We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all.”
There’s a unified message between these scientists and the Pope: we act now, and act together, or face the consequences.
The scientific community and the Church community both speaking loudly about the same message doesn’t seem to happen very often, but I’m thrilled that they are. In this issue that really does affect all of us, in our common home, we can’t afford to be divided. At this intersection between science, politics, faith, poverty, economics and welfare, the unified front is the only one that contains a glimmer of hope against our own self-destruction.