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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Why Should I Care?
distributed 9/13/02 - ©2002

"Why should I care if the Black Rhino goes extinct?"

The man who asked me that didn't have any particular grudge against rhinos. He was really asking about any of the thousands of species that are on the brink of extinction.

The snail darter, spotted owl, pandas. Why are we so worried? Aren't they all just evolutionary failures? Isn't extinction a normal part of how the world works?

His question, I think, wasn't just about his personal caring. He was asking why we, as a nation and a world community, should care about preserving those small populations of quirky species. He was asking why we should invest the energy, money, time and conflict that it takes to bring a species back from the brink.

As we talked, I dealt primarily with the practicalities. I tried to communicate some of the complexity of ecosystems, and how removing one small part of the system can disrupt or even destroy a much larger community. I briefly touched on the theological idea of the integrity of creation, and how each of those species has worth in the eyes of God.

But looking back, I see that I didn't really answer his question. I never dealt directly with the first four words: "Why should I care?" I didn't move from rational arguments into the "heart" level where caring and compassion and commitment are grounded.

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Suppose that you live in a small city.

It is normal to have one or two people die per day from natural causes. They are folk who have lived long and full lives, and the time has come for them to "cross over." Occasionally, there is a tragic death -- a traffic accident, a murder, an unusual disease.

It's a smaller city, so everybody reads the obituaries in the newspaper, but most of the time the funeral notices don't stir up deep concern or powerful grief. Life is going on pretty much like we all expect. The birth notices balance out the obituaries.

Suppose now that something has happened to the city.

Instead of one or two deaths per day, there are 10, then 50, then hundreds. Now the paper is filled with obituaries. The few deaths attributable to natural causes and old age are joined with vast numbers of others caused by murder, starvation, epidemics. Entire families are lost. Every neighborhood feels the pain. An elementary school might have a student die every week. Churches gather every Sunday to process a new round of grief.

The toll climbs past 1,000 per day, and death is no longer the familiar and often welcome companion to life. This is not the way it has been; it is not the way it should be.

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Over the eons, a few species have always disappeared every year -- unable to compete in the flow of natural selection, hit by a selective virus, or nailed by a natural disaster in their tiny region. And through the eons, new species emerge in the wondrous flow of evolution. At the species level, new births balance the deaths.

But scientists report that extinction rates are now running at least 1,000 times higher than that normal rate. Species are disappearing for different reasons than in the past, and almost all of those reasons involve human influences.

Habitat loss removes food sources, nesting sites and water supplies. Dams change water temperatures and break migration routes. Introduced species, transplanted from other parts of the world, bring sudden new competition. Hunting and fishing have devastating impacts. Herbicides and pesticides are used intentionally to deplete populations. Pollutants cause mutation and disease.

Death is not coming only to the old and infirm, to the expected losers in the game of natural selection. Death is not taking only small, marginal species. It is ripping into the creatures that have been strong and vibrant. It is tearing into the central fabric of the community of life.

Why should I care? Isn't this normal? These are reasonable questions when most of the deaths are in the biological equivalents of nursing homes. It may not make sense to prolong life support for those whose natural time is drawing to a close.

But the situation changes when the death rate explodes. Extinctions are taking the strong and healthy, the species that are essential and productive members of our community of life. Concern and compassion are appropriate. So, too, are anger and fear, because our global village is being decimated.

Caring about extinctions requires that we be touched by the enormity and the abnormality of what is happening. Of all social institutions, our churches have a special calling to foster caring and compassion. We can touch our people's hearts and minds.

Is your church helping people to care about the wave of extinction sweeping our planet?

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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