The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries
No Need of You?
A new report from the international conservation organization WWF is frightening, distressing, overwhelming. As I have tried to take in the meaning of this news, I find guidance in old words from the Bible. Paul's familiar instructions about spiritual gifts -- when read with ecology in mind -- center me in the need to care for this intricate and threatened planet.
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The WWF publication is their Living Planet Report, which they describe as "the world's leading, science-based analysis on the health of our planet and the impact of human activity." The extensive survey is released every other year. The WWF website gets to the heart of this year's findings:
This latest edition of the Living Planet Report is not for the faint-hearted. One key point that jumps out is that the Living Planet Index (LPI), which measures more than 10,000 representative populations of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish, has declined by 52 per cent since 1970.
Often, awareness and concern for Earth's biological health looks at endangered species and extinction. That is a very real crisis, because we're losing species at about 1,000 times what biologists consider the long-term rate. The current loss of biodiversity is said to be more severe and more rapid than what happened with the die-off of the dinosaurs.
Extinction is closely related to what the WWF studied, but the living planet index is both more comprehensive and more limited. It is a census report, looking at the size of animal populations of a wide variety of vertebrate species. It does not look at invertebrates or plants which are important parts of the extinction crisis. Some species are doing well, with their numbers growing and in no danger of extinction, and others are declining. But overall, those vertebrate populations are less than half of what they were in 1970.
Think of a census of every city and town in a state. Some communities grow and others shrink, but when the figures are assembled, the state has half the residents as the previous survey. Vacant homes, empty schools and shuttered businesses are everywhere. That's a sign of real trouble. That is the sort of widespread decline described by the LPI.
The WWF reports that this decline is worldwide, on land and in water, and the numbers are staggering. In just 44 years, terrestrial species declined 39%, freshwater species declined 76%, and marine species declined 39%. Tropical populations are down 56% (with Latin America falling 83%), while the temperate index declined "only" 36%.
There are reasons why animal populations are plummeting, and those reasons are overwhelmingly human. The major threats to animal populations include exploitation (hunting and fishing) which is rated at 37%, habitat degradation (31.4%), and habitat loss (13.4%). These factors can overlap. The forest elephant in Africa, for example, is being slammed by both the fragmentation and loss of their forest habitat, and by the wasteful killing that accompanies ivory poaching.
In the language often used in discussing climate change, the factors driving the population decline are "business as usual" for the modern world. With the exception of despicable practices like the slaughter of elephants for ivory, most of what is going on is normal, accepted, even celebrated human activities. Habitat loss for wildlife happens when humans take over the land for agriculture, urban development, or energy production. It is what most economic approaches label as "progress" and "good news."
The report is hard to absorb, both intellectually and emotionally. It is full of "infographics" -- what we used to call charts and graphs -- giving vivid but still abstract perspectives on heavy statistical information. It takes concentration to process the numbers, and to begin to imagine what those numbers mean in the real world. And that's where the emotional difficulty hits. The grief and anger rising in me are profound as this soaks in. In Latin America, there is just 1/5 of the vertebrate life, just 1/5 of the "mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish" compared to 1970. In the span of my adult life, that part of the world has literally been emptied of animals.
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So what is the word from Paul that guides me? The horror of devastated animal populations is not something that he considered (or could have imagined). I have to stretch what he said in a very different context to get ecological meaning -- but I think it is a perfectly legitimate stretch.
The problematic church in Corinth had many conflicts. One of them had to do with people who had esteemed spiritual gifts dismissing, and maybe even excluding, others with more mundane abilities. Paul -- in a long and rambling analogy that fills much of 1 Corinthians 12 -- likens the church to a human body with many parts.
He criticizes those who do the excluding: "The eye cannot say to the hand, 'I have no need of you,' and nor can the head say to the feet, 'I have no need of you.'" And he drives home the message of community: "If one part is hurt, all the parts share its pain. And if one part is honored, all the parts share its joy."
The ecological parallel seems obvious to me. We humans cannot say to our vertebrate kin that we have no need of them. We cannot -- morally or practically -- make our lives and our activities the only consideration, and dismiss the gifts and needs of other species.
Paul says, "As it is, God has put all the separate parts into the body as he chose. If they were all the same part, how could it be a body? As it is, the parts are many but the body is one." WWF says the same thing in more scientific terms, "These are the living forms that constitute the fabric of the ecosystems which sustain life on Earth."
Business as usual is doing to creation what the pompous church members did in Corinth. Business as usual says to the rest of creation, "I have no need of you" -- and we have lost over half of vertebrate life as a result. Business as usual is dismantling the fabric of life-sustaining ecosystems.
Morally, spiritually, and practically, this devastation of creation must stop. The integrity of Earth's ecology must be preserved, or we will not survive.
The WWF report does provide guidance for what can and must be done. It describes "one planet solutions" that illustrate practical decisions. I'm still working through the sections of the document that point to economic and institutional changes to slow the decline. It is clear that the changes need to be systemic -- personal actions are not sufficient to change global business as usual.
But before we can begin to strategize for change, we must claim in our heads and our hearts the truth of what Paul said. We cannot say to our neighbors, "I have no need of you." We must remember that we are all part of the body of creation, and dedicate ourselves to the good of the whole.
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