AS WE commemorate June as the Philippine Environment Month, the need for biodiversity conservation has never been more apparent than it is today. The lockdown caused by the Covid-19 pandemic has made us not only realize the extent of impacts of environmental negligence on human societies, but also witness wildlife thrive in the absence of pollution and abuse.
This year marks the fifth anniversary of the Laudato Si', a landmark encyclical by Pope Francis for its emphasis on “care for our common home.” This provides us a timely opportunity to reflect on the current state of our biodiversity and our relationship with it.
What the Laudato Si’ says
A central theme in the Laudato Si’ is that the Earth’s resources are being overexploited in pursuit of short-term profits and economic growth. In the context of biodiversity, this leads to the disruption of ecological balance that results in more losses and damages than what we can see at face value.
Pope Francis criticizes the culture of modern anthropocentrism, where the prioritization of technical thought over reality leads to characterizing our environment as simply a source of raw materials. He reflects that different species are not merely “potential ‘resources’ to be exploited” and have innate value and dignity, from large mammals and birds to organisms unseen by the naked eye.
Without properly recognizing the well-being of biodiversity, humankind has intervened in the Earth’s ecosystems, leaving them in a more fragile, vulnerable state. Furthermore, as biodiversity is ignored when assessing the impacts of human activities, the extent of the effects associated with its loss also becomes difficult to measure. More often than not, the cost of the damage of such activities is greater than the profits or other economic benefits obtained.
This damage can manifest itself in pollution, climate change, epidemics, poverty, and other threats to individuals and communities alike. Instead of using its abilities and resources to be responsible stewards for the environment, humankind “is actually making our earth less rich and beautiful, ever more limited and grey.”
To take better care of our biodiversity, Pope Francis recommends that greater investments must be made to gain a more complete understanding of “the functioning of ecosystems and adequately analyzing the different variables associated with any significant modification of the environment.” He also encourages more people to join the efforts of international agencies and civil society groups in drawing public attention to biodiversity-related issues and pressure their respective government to carry “its proper and inalienable responsibility to preserve its country’s environment and natural resources, without capitulating to spurious local or international interests.”
Our interconnectedness is reflected in Pope Francis’s idea of an integral ecology, “which respects our unique place as human beings in this world and our relationship to our surroundings.” Similar to the many crises facing our world today, an integrated approach is necessary to address the complex issues with biodiversity, aligned with promoting environmental and social justice for both current and future generations.
Pause and restart
As it stands today, neither the current nor future state of biodiversity and ecosystems will be anything but in a decline. As the human population has doubled in the past 50 years, so has the rate of resource extraction, placing an immense stress on biodiversity. One million species, or one in every eight that currently lives, are threatened with extinction, with more than half of them already deemed to have no chance of long-term survival.
Half of the world’s coral reefs have been eradicated in the past 200 years. Around 85 percent of global wetlands are gone. Around 32 million hectares of tropical rainforests were cleared from 2010 to 2015, mostly for cattle pastures or oil-palm plantations. Nearly one-fourth of global lands are ecologically degraded by human activities, rendering them unusable. Up to 300 million people are at risk of losing their livelihoods, with billions of dollars of projected annual socioeconomic losses.
So where do we go from here? It starts with a fundamental understanding that nature is the foundation for development and resilience, not merely a bank for withdrawing resources. It starts with us recognizing that planetary health is linked to human health, and that neither should be compromised just for maximizing profits.
Moving forward, we must invest our time, resources, and efforts in the proper implementation of measures to protect and restore ecosystems, prevent more pollution, stop illegal logging, fishing, and wildlife trading. We also need to change our individual consumption habits to lessen the burden on our ecosystems and contribute towards genuine sustainability..
The reality is that we have caused an immeasurable damage to our biodiversity. Yet we still have an opportunity to avoid further losses and plant the seeds for its rebirth. From this point on, the world as we know it will never be the same again, literally and figuratively.
(John Leo is the program manager of Living Laudato Si Philippines and Climate Action for Sustainability Initiative (Kasali). He has also been a citizen journalist and feature writer since 2016.)