An evergreen topic

Scientists are at the Vatican discussing how to save the planet. It could get depressing.

On Monday, leading biologists, ecologists, and economists are gathering at the Vatican for a series of discussions about humanity’s relationship to the natural world. Pope Francis has made environmental stewardship a key issue for the Catholic church, and this latest summit will attempt to identify social and economic changes that need to take place in order to prevent the planet’s ecology from falling too far into disrepair, and in doing so disrupting human progress.

The conference follows Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical, Laudato Si, calling for better care and concern for “our Common Home.”

With the global population expected to increase from 7.4 billion to just over 11 billion by 2100 according to the UN, the urgency of balancing human prosperity with the needs of other species—of which half could be extinct by 2100—is high on the agenda of the Biological Extinction conference.

Headlined as “How to Save the Natural World on Which We Depend”, the overview states that on a planet on which life has been around for some 3.7 billion years, we are rapidly headed into a sixth mass extinction event—this one driven by human impact that really took off about 10,000 years ago with the cultivation of crops and grazing.

According to the conference organizers:

It is estimated that at the time of Christ, there may have been 300 million people globally; now there are 7.3 billion. Some 11% of the world’s ice-free land surface have been converted to crop agriculture, another 20% to grazing, most of it unsustainable, on natural grasslands. It is obvious that many of the kinds of organisms that occurred 10,000 years ago have already gone extinct, and that we are dealing with a reduced set of the organisms that existed when agriculture was first adopted by our ancestors.

With a net of 250,000 extra people added every day now, the challenges for maintaining any reasonable level of biological diversity into the next century continue to mount. “In about 1970 we were using about 70% of the Earth’s sustainable capacity, and now that we are using about 156%,” state the conference organizers. “Nevertheless there are 800 million people chronically malnourished and 100 million on the verge of starvation at any one time.”

Some of the biggest challenges to biodiversity are land clearing for agriculture and urban development; invasive species; unsustainable consumption of plant and animal species; and global climate change. According to the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, climate change could destroy 20-40% of all biodiversity on Earth by the end of this century regardless of any other factors.

“The living fabric of the world, which we are enjoyed in Genesis, Chapter II to protect, is slipping through our fingers without our showing much sign of caring,” state the conference organizers:

What does this all mean for biodiversity, and what does biodiversity mean for us? In short, everything. All of our food comes directly or indirectly from higher plants, of which there are an estimated 425,000 species. Tens of thousands of these have been cultivated for food at some time by some people, but at present, 103 of them produce about 90% of our food worldwide, while three kinds of grain, maize, rice, and wheat, produce about 60% of the total. We have detailed knowledge of perhaps only a fifth of the species of plants in the world, and a majority could be gone in nature by the end of the century we entered recently.

Biologist Paul Ehrlich at Stanford University in California told the Guardian that “rich western countries are now siphoning up the planet’s resources and destroying its ecosystems at an unprecedented rate.”

“We want to build highways across the Serengeti to get more rare earth minerals for our cellphones,” he said. “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?”

Friday, March 3, is World Wildlife Day. Maybe they’ll be able to generate a few promising ideas by then.