Protecting Earth's web of life


Ellen Teague explains that in our age of ecological crisis, where we see rampant consumerism and indifference to Earth’s biodiversity, people of faith are increasingly involved in building a movement to care for our common home.

Fourteen years ago, I visited an experimental “permaculture” farm near Manila, run by the Columban Missionaries. There were so many shades of green and all kinds of fruit trees — mangoes, bananas, coconuts — amongst the lush vegetation. I marvelled at the rows of food crops and the worm farm that was turning kitchen and garden waste into nutrient-rich compost. The buzzing of insects and birdsong filled the air. The soil, vegetation, trees, and air were all moist and full of life. I felt like I had walked into the Garden of Eden!

The Philippines is one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots. Irish Columban eco-theologian Sean McDonagh, who worked in the Philippines for three decades, tells a story about a research project on just one tree that found more than 3,000 species living on it. But sadly, the Philippines is just one hotspot where biodiversity is being destroyed, mainly by loss of habitat to deforestation and large-scale mining. Sean’s book, The Death of Life addresses this issue. The Columbans have long had Environmental Justice as a campaigning priority of its Justice, Peace and Ecology teams in the 16 countries where they work, such as Pakistan and South Korea. And biodiversity is a key focus.

Biodiversity is life

The word “biodiversity” was coined in the 1980s when people were growing more aware of the plight of rare mammals, such as tigers, and threats to tropical forests and coral reefs. It encompasses the full range of genera, species and ecosystems on the planet, including the crops we eat and the insects that pollinate them, the bacteria that help create the soil that sustains farming, and the microscopic plankton at the base of food chains that end with fish on our dinner plates. It includes ecosystems such as forests that regulate water supplies and climate. Although rainforests cover only 6% of the land area in the world, they are habitat for at least half of the world’s species and are crucial for the world’s water system.

Yet, on 12 October 2022, the Living Planet Report 2022, released by the WWW (World Wide Fund for Nature), revealed that global wildlife populations have plummeted by 69% on average since 1970. The staggering rate of decline is a severe warning that the rich biodiversity that sustains all life on our planet is in crisis, putting every species at risk — including humanity. Our world’s most vulnerable people, places, and wildlife — and those least responsible for the climate and nature crisis — are already suffering. In his 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’, referring to biodiversity, Pope Francis warned: “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 forever. 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.”

And human well-being is put at risk too. Half the calories we eat come from just three plants — rice, wheat, and corn — but there are at least 30,000 edible plants. Biodiversity also serves as our medicine cabinet. More than half of commonly prescribed drugs are derived from natural products, while 60% of people in developing countries rely on traditional medicines — mostly plant-based — for their health care. This is quite apart from the role green land cover and ocean health have in ensuring a stable climate.

Faiths promoting all life

All the world’s major faiths ascribe the variety of life on Earth to divine creation and urge followers to respect and care for nature. Creation theologians such as Sean McDonagh take the view that the Earth itself is a bio-spiritual entity in which humans sit in the context of an interrelated and complex web of life. He suggests that the Christian churches “have been slow to recognise the attack on life, which is so relentless today, but sooner or later, extinction will rob our planet of the ability to sustain many forms of life, possibly even our own”.

Modern destruction of the natural world has been called “sinful” by the bishops of the Philippines. They have tackled the destructiveness of extractive industries. Missionary groups, too, feel that the context of mission has changed, and it must incorporate care of God’s creation, which is already an element of Catholic Social Teaching. The chapter on biodiversity in Laudato Si’ was picked up last year in the document, The Wailing of God’s Creatures, commissioned for the Laudato Si’ Research Institute by Catholic organisations CIDSE, CAFOD, and the Global Catholic Climate Movement.

Church’s mission to protect biodiversity

Faith groups are planning to engage with the UN Convention COP 15 in Canada in December. Columban co-workers Amy Echeverria and Wesley Cocozello will be attending. The UN Convention on Biological Diversity legally binds nation signatories to conserve biological resources, use them sustainably, and share the benefits arising from their use fairly. But it is poorly implemented. The Laudato Si’ Movement and the Union of International Superiors General of Religious are among those with a robust voice calling for the protection of all life on the planet. These groups have endorsed the Movement’s Biodiversity petition: Healthy People, Healthy Planet.

The Missionary Society of St Columban has produced two podcast mini-series about the beauty of biodiversity and the threats it faces. The study guide and embedded video links are available on Columban websites. The Columbans hope that these podcasts, grounded in Catholic Social Teaching, will promote an understanding of how caring for “our common home”, as Pope Francis calls it, is fundamental to our lives as people of faith and global citizens.

What is at stake? 

Nothing less than the life we know on this planet is at state. In an age of ecological crisis — where we see rampant consumerism and indifference to Earth’s biodiversity — people of faith must rally to provide care for our common home lest we lose it.

Ellen Teague is a member of the Columban Peace, Ecology and Justice Team in Britain.

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