Welcome to the planet’s sixth major extinction — take a seat.

The tree of life might become a stump, thanks to us. Image credits: Dano Biodiversity.

If you thought mass extinctions are something that’s only discussed in the past tense, here’s a sobering truth: half of all the species on Earth could go extinct in less than a century. Speaking at a conference in Vatican,  biologists warn that 20% of the planet’s species are under threat of extinction today, and that number could grow dramatically by the end of the century.

“The living fabric of the world is slipping through our fingers without our showing much sign of caring,” say the organisers of the Biological Extinction conference held at the Vatican this week.

The main culprit, as it so often happens, is climate change — though habitat destruction, water scarcity, and lack of adequate food are all major threats. Our soaring population, set to reach 11.2 billion people by 2100 is certainly not helping. Basically, it all boils down to one thing: we’re taking too many of the planet’s resources, and there’s not enough left for wildlife.

“Rich western countries are now siphoning up the planet’s resources and destroying its ecosystems at an unprecedented rate,” said biologist Paul Ehrlich, of Stanford University in California. “We want to build highways across the Serengeti to get more rare earth minerals for our cellphones. 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?”

Old feuds, new friendships

The Vatican is certainly an intriguing place for such a conference. The involvement of the Pope in such issues can only yield positive effects. Image credits: Michal Osmenda

It’s certainly intriguing that these forecasts were revealed at a conference in the Vatican. The conference is part of a series of talks arranged by Pope Francis on ecological issues, which are deemed urgent issues by the pontiff. His 2015 encyclical, called Laudato Si, urges the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics — and everyone else — to protect the environment and spare communities from climate change. This initiative has been applauded by many researchers, who view the talks as a clear sign that centuries-old animosities between science and the church have been definitely stifled. Working together is now more important than ever.

“We need to unravel the processes that led to the ills we are now facing,” said one of the conference’s organisers, the economist Sir Partha Dasgupta, of 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.”

But even as this unfolds, signs of significant disagreements are still obvious. Like many sociologists, Ehrlich is a big supporter of population control, advocating birth control as one of the most sustainable solutions to the growing pressure humanity is exerting on the planet.

“If you value people, you want to have the maximum number you can support sustainably. You do not want almost 12 billion living unsustainably on Earth by the end of the century – with the result that civilisation will collapse and there are only a few hundred survivors.”

He argues that in the long run, stabilizing the world’s population around 1 billion would be pro-life, helping humanity as well as Earth’s other inhabitants. Unlike him, most Christians are staunchly against birth control. They even set up a petition, with about 11,000 signatures, to not allow Ehrlich to talk in the Vatican. The pope, however, has not changed his mind.

Does this look OK to you?

We’ll all suffer

The problem with mass extinctions is twofold. For starters, we’re killing off the world’s animals and plants. Certainly, that must count for something in itself, as Pope Francis himself wrote:

“Because all creatures are connected, each must be cherished with love and respect, for all of us as living creatures are dependent on one another.”

The second part of his statement introduces the other problem: if species start going extinct, we’re also in trouble. We’re not an independent species, living in the bubble of our society. Whether we realize it or not, we’re tightly connected to the rest of the world. We rely on other species for food, medicine, materials, and countless other environmental services which we may not even realize yet — and if a species is gone, it’s gone for good. Even worse, when a species is gone, it may trigger a domino effect in its ecosystem, leading to more and more collapses. Professor Peter Raven, of the Missouri Botanical Garden, emphasized that point:

“By the beginning of the next century we face the prospect of losing half our wildlife. Yet we rely on the living world to sustain ourselves. It is very frightening. The extinctions we face pose an even greater threat to civilisation than climate change – for the simple reason they are irreversible.”

We don’t care enough

The emblematic tigers might soon become a thing of the past. Image credits: Keven Law.

The gist of it is simple but bleak. There’s too many of us, there will be even more of us, and we’re using too many resources. We’re emitting greenhouse gases that warm the planet, we cut down forests for agriculture, we pollute the rivers and oceans, we alter soils — we kill animals and plants, directly or indirectly. There’s not a single corner of the world that we haven’t affected and yet we don’t seem to care about it all that much.

Extinctions from popular species make headlines sometimes, but species often go extinct without a single word. There’s literally thousands of studies documenting man-driven climate change and its effects, and yet we’re still debating whether global warming is real or not. The US, the world’s most influential country, just elected a president who doesn’t believe in climate change and wants to promote fossil fuels. China, the world’s most populous country, and the biggest economy, just recently banned the eating of endangered animals — and on the black market, traditional Chinese medicine alone drives species into extinction.

The world seems not incapable but rather unwilling to take the necessary steps to ensure a sustainable future — not for the Earth, but for ourselves. If forecasts are confirmed, and 30-50% of the planet’s species will be wiped out by 2100, we’ll all be to blame. Oh, and we’ll all suffer.

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