It’s no secret that human beings are really blowing it. We sit around, fat and greedy, eating fossil fuels and belching poison, and we do it so we can get fatter and lazier. Make no mistake, I’m as guilty as most. It’s hard not to be when the majority of our society is driven by things that kill the planet, despite the fact that there are other options to be explored. Right now, according to some of the world’s leading biologists, a staggering one in five species is staring down the barrel of an extinction cannon, and we’re lighting the fuse–and it’s only going to get worse. During the Biological Extinction conference held at the Vatican this week, those biologists, along with ecologists and economists, predicted by the end of the century, roughly half of all species on earth will face extinction. Sound a little alarmist? Yes. But perhaps there’s real cause for alarm.
“By the beginning of the next century we face the prospect of losing half our wildlife,” said biologist Professor Peter Raven, of the Missouri Botanical Garden. “Yet we rely on the living world to sustain ourselves. It is very frightening. The extinctions we face pose an even greater threat to civilization than climate change, for the simple reason they are irreversible.”
The conference, which is described as a search “for a solution to the manmade ‘major extinction event'”, is, somewhat oddly, set up by Pope Francis and the Vatican. “We need to unravel the processes that led to the ills we are now facing,” said Sir Partha Dasgupta, an economist from Cambridge University. “That is why the Vatican symposia involve natural and social scientists, as well as scholars from the humanities. That the symposia are being held at the Papal Academy is also symbolic. It shows that the ancient hostility between science and the church, at least on the issue of preserving Earth’s services, has been quelled.”
The Workshop on Biological Extinction, a wordy document released by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, paints a bleak picture.
“There is no possibility of improving our situation without the widespread adoption of social justice, both as a matter of morality and as a matter of survival,” it reads.” In recent years the Pontifical Academies have held several colloquia on the subject of social justice, global inequality, and deep poverty in the contemporary world. But we haven’t addressed the question whether the Earth system is able to support the demands that humanity has been making on it, nor how global inequality and poverty relate to that. The survival of the natural world, and ultimately our survival, depends on our adoption of principles of social justice and sustainability. And sustainability requires care for the biodiversity that supplies the services that enable humanity to live and prosper.”
Although it’s usually the extinction of more obvious creatures such as the West African black rhino that makes headlines, it’s the tiny ones that make up the vast majority of extinction events. According to the UN Environment Programme, every 24 hours upwards of 200 species–that’s plants, insects, birds, and mammals–go extinct. That’s more than a thousand times the natural rate, and according to biologists, is a rate that hasn’t been experienced since the dinosaurs died 60 million years ago.
Of course, the (endangered) elephant in the room comes down to one very difficult subject: our planet simply cannot sustain the number of people currently living on it. Paul Ehrlich, a biologist and President of the Center for Conservation Biology at Stanford, was in attendance at the conference, which was a bit of a sticky situation for many of the Catholics involved. Ehrlich has been very vocal about the need for widespread birth control in order to put a stop to a rapidly increasing global population. There was even a petition set up asking the Pope to rescind his invitation to speak. More than 10,000 people signed it, but Pope Francis paid no heed.
“If you value people, you want to have the maximum number you can support sustainably,” said Ehrlich before this very dire prediction. “You do not want almost 12 billion living unsustainably on Earth by the end of the century – with the result that civilization will collapse and there are only a few hundred survivors.”
According to Ehrlich, if everyone on earth lived the way the vast majority of Americans do, we’d need something impossible: more habitable planets. “If you look at the figures, it is clear that to support today’s world population sustainably – and I emphasize the word sustainably – you would require another half a planet to provide us with those resources,” he explained. “However, if everyone consumed resources at the US level – which is what the world aspires to – you will need another four or five Earths.”
According to UN statistics, as of 2015, the world population hovered around 7 billion. At the current birth vs death rate, that’s expected to reach 8.5 billion by 2030, 9.7 billion by 2050, and 11.2 billion by 2100. Populations are booming at an unprecedented rate, and modern medicine is enabling us to live far longer than ever before. All that adds up to a global society that–to be blunt–absolutely cannot work in the current climate.
“Rich western countries are now siphoning up the planet’s resources and destroying its ecosystems at an unprecedented rate,” Ehrlich continued. “We want to build highways across the Serengeti to get more rare earth minerals for our cell phones. We grab all the fish from the sea, wreck the coral reefs, and put carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. We have triggered a major extinction event. The question is: how do we stop it?”