The Biomimicry Column

Why we need an ‘Interdependence’ Day

biodiversity and commercialism
What does it mean for people when species are going extinct at record rates?

Fresh off of Independence Day here in the U.S., I would like to suggest that we add another special day to our calendars: “Interdependence Day.”

Such an occasion might remind us that we do not exist alone on this planet. In fact, while the rest of the natural world could get along pretty well without humans, the converse is not true.

We need the other organisms of this world in order to survive, let alone prosper. A celebration of our shared fate might help focus our attention on more ways to husband our natural world, rather than exploit it.

It seems baldly suicidal to exterminate the other organisms of our world upon which we are so dependent, but this is what we appear to be doing.

A recent paper in the journal Science Advances compared current vertebrate extinction rates with a baseline, or background rate, and found that species extinction is happening faster than it has in the last 65 million years. Authors from the University of California, Berkeley; Stanford University; the National Autonomous University of Mexico; Princeton University; and the University of Florida say the current rate of extinction is up to 100 times the background rate over the last century.

One of the authors, Paul Ehrlich, senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, compared this rate to the meteor that wiped out the dinosaurs. Indeed, this situation is typically called the “Sixth Mass Extinction” and, according to the authors, is well underway. We are the ones responsible for it, and we do not have much time to correct it.

Habitat destruction, pollution (including its result, climate change) and invasive species are the main direct drivers of this extinction. These conditions, in turn, are caused by the rapid growth of population and consumption.

Connecting the dots on conservation

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, about 41 percent of all amphibian species and 26 percent of all mammals are currently threatened with extinction.

Why should we care if, say, 477 vertebrate animals have gone extinct since 1900, as this report claims? It represents a breakdown in the ecosystems that have supported these creatures — and these ecosystems also support us.

Pollination, water purification and flood control are just three essential services that these systems provide. The authors estimate that we have about three human lifetimes to halt this rapid rate of loss before our ecosystems become so shredded that they no longer can support us.

Because recoveries from previous mass extinctions typically have required hundreds of thousands of years, the breakdown of biodiversity within our epoch, for all practical human purposes, would be permanent.

Wealth and technology no longer will shield the developed nations from this loss. It is inextricably linked with an increasing scarcity of resources and the fragmentation of society.

A marked example lies in California, where the years-long drought has forced the state and its citizens to confront basic issues of equity within a democratic society: Who gets access to this basic resource? Who pays what for that access? When payment becomes useless for a commodity that is no longer available, what comes next?

Beyond governance in a democratic society, embedded in the issue of biodiversity is the moral responsibility to our fellow men and women and the home we have all been blessed to live in. These issues are exposed raw in the developing world, where populations depend directly on the health of the local biota for daily survival.

This dynamic even has prompted Pope Francis to align himself with the champions of the environment, because the stakes for humanity are so high. In his recent encyclical, “On Care for Our Common Home,” he wrote that protection of the environment is a moral imperative and a matter of social justice for the world’s poor.

“Particular appreciation is owed to those who tirelessly seek to resolve the tragic effects of environmental degradation on the lives of the world’s poorest,” the pope wrote. “Young people demand change. They wonder how anyone can claim to be building a better future without thinking of the environmental crisis and the sufferings of the excluded. ”

In a remarkable blend of common sense, scientific fact and moral suasion, the pontiff has written a clear manifesto to all the world’s citizens. He outlines the current crisis, traces the root causes and proposes fundamental changes in approach and action to try to solve the crisis.

Defining an integral ecology

Pope Francis also proposes a new type of ecology in his Encyclical — an integral ecology that links the human and social condition to the environment:

“Since everything is closely interrelated, and today’s problems call for a vision capable of taking into account every aspect of the global crisis, I suggest that we now consider some elements of an integral ecology, one which clearly respects its human and social dimensions,” he wrote.

“An integral ecology is inseparable from the notion of the common good, a central and unifying principle of social ethics. The common good is ‘the sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfillment.’”

The Encyclical also contains a chapter focused on biodiversity. It briefly outlines several important global issues: exploitation; harmful (if well-meaning) intervention; degradation of the global commons and destruction of highly diverse ecosystems, such as rainforests and coral reefs.

The chapter began with a simple starting point as a counterbalance to the prevailing social paradigm of commercialism:

“It is not enough, however, to think of different species merely as potential ‘resources’ to be exploited, while overlooking the fact that they have value in themselves,” he wrote. “Environmental protection cannot be assured solely on the basis of financial calculations of costs and benefits. The environment is one of those goods that cannot be adequately safeguarded or promoted by market forces.”

Importantly, this call to collective action to save and nurture the earth has been made an official part of his church’s social teachings to the faithful. At over 1 billion people, Catholics comprise about 16 percent of the world’s population. The pope stresses repeatedly the shared concepts of the ecological idea of interdependence and the wider religious notion contained in the teachings of the Catholic Church.

Addressing his wider audience, the pope also made use of some ecologically inspired urban design concepts:

“Productive development,” he explained, “could generate intelligent and profitable ways of reusing, revamping and recycling, and it could also improve the energy efficiency of cities. Productive diversification offers the fullest possibilities to human ingenuity to create and innovate, while at the same time protecting the environment and creating more sources of employment.”

Pope Francis also recognizes in the document a need for both science and faith. He argues persuasively for a dialogue between the two.

"Any technical solution which science claims to offer will be powerless to solve the serious problems of our world if humanity loses its compass, if we lose sight of the great motivations which make it possible for us to live in harmony, to make sacrifices and to treat others well,” he wrote.

Underlying both the sentiment of the pope and myriad studies on waning biodiversity is a call for the recognition of interdependence: of each other as individuals of societies, of science, of faith and of nature. Surely, that’s worth at least one day of communal reflection.