The Deteriorating Condition of Our Common Home

  • Michael J. Kelly, S.J.

Fr Michael J. Kelly SJ

Fr Michael J. Kelly SJ

Jesuit Michael J. Kelly has been based in Zambia for 65 years. Over many years of his commitment to education and development, he has also served as a consultant with a number of international agencies, including UNESCO, UNICEF, the FAO, the Association of African Universities, and the SADC Parliamentary Forum.

"Nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history - and the rate of species extinctions is accelerating, with grave impacts on people around the world now likely." That is the sombre message from a recent voluminous landmark report entitled Nature's Dangerous Decline, coming from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). This report - the most comprehensive scientific report ever undertaken on the natural environment - presents an ominous picture of the way the health of the natural systems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than at any previous time in human history. While more food, energy and materials than ever are now being supplied to people in most places, this is increasingly at the expense of nature's ability to provide such contributions in the future and frequently undermines nature's many other contributions.

The Human Context

The human setting for the IPBES report is that, since 1970, the world's population has more than doubled, the global economy has grown nearly fourfold and global trade has increased tenfold. Increased population and global economies that are strongly focussed on promoting consumption are driving up the demands for food, water, energy and materials, while at the same time they are generating a great increase in waste. There is also the stark fact that there has been global failure to respond to basic human needs, with around 11% of the world's population remaining undernourished while 821 million people in Asia and Africa face food insecurity. In addition, more than 3 billion people - 40% of the global population - lack access to clean and safe drinking water, while approximately 2 billion rely on wood fuel to meet their primary energy needs. Compounding the survival problems that people face, there is the further very disturbing fact that currently more than 2,500 conflicts are occurring worldwide over fossil fuels (coal, petroleum, gas), water, food resources and land.

Ways in which Nature is being Abused

The IPBES report devotes considerable space to presenting key facts and statistics that outline the ways in which men and women have been ruthlessly damaging the natural world, especially in the past 50 years. The distressing facts that these documents present illustrate very powerfully the truth of what Pope Francis said in Laudato Si' (LS): Mother Earth "now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her" (LS, 2). The following are some of the abuses to which the IPBES report draws attention, with reference in some cases to what Pope Francis says about the problem:

  • Global Change in Nature: Across most of the globe nature has now been significantly altered by multiple human interventions, with the great majority of indicators of ecosystems and biodiversity declining at rates unprecedented in human history.
  • Loss of Biodiversity: Around 1 million of the Earth's estimated total of 8 million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, many within decades.
  • Global Warming: The 2015 Paris Agreement aimed at keeping the global temperature increase this century to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, while pursuing efforts to limit the increase to no more than 1.5°C. But with average temperatures over the past 30 years rising by 0.2°C per decade, human interventions had already led by 2017 to an observed global warming of approximately 1.0°C.
  • Climate Change: In June 2019, Pope Francis declared that the world was experiencing a global "climate emergency", warned of the dangers of global warming and stated that failure to act urgently to reduce greenhouse gases would be "a brutal act of injustice toward the poor and future generations".
  • Use of Fossil Fuels: Instead of deriving ever more energy from the sun and from wind and water movements, the world is proposing to increase its use of fossil fuels, with governments planning to produce about 50% more fossil fuels by 2030 than would be consistent with a 2°C global warming pathway and 120% more than would be consistent with a 1.5°C pathway.
  • Exploitation of the World's Resources: Today, humans extract more from the earth and produce more waste than ever before. Globally, approximately 60 billion tons of renewable and non-renewable resources are extracted from the earth every year - nearly double what it had been in 1980.
  • Pollution and Waste: Each year three to four hundred million tons of waste materials from industrial facilities are dumped into the world's rivers and oceans. Marine plastic pollution has increased tenfold since 1980. In 2014 it was estimated that more than 250,000 tons of microplastic particles were floating in five major plastic "garbage patches" that covered 40% of the world's oceans. Illness and mortality from air pollution also occur, caused by people inhaling or ingesting very small particles of toxic matter, coming either directly from fuel combustion or formed indirectly from atmospheric gases. Mining operations may also lead to harmful pollution in the air, soil, plants and water, leaving people exposed to long-lasting injurious effects. Following almost a century of lead and zinc mining, Kabwe has won for itself the unenviable reputation of being the most toxic city in the world.
  • Deforestation: Tropical forests, the lungs of Mother Earth, continue to dwindle. The global forest area today is only about two-thirds of its estimated pre-industrial level.
  • Water Security: The deplorable bottom-line figure is that today, well into the 21st century, 40% of the world's population still lacks access to clean and safe drinking water, while it is estimated that by 2030 demand for freshwater will exceed supply by 40%. But while there is not enough water in many places, the world is also facing the growing challenge that the warming global climate is leading to too much water in others, with 112 million people being affected by floods in the decade 2005-2015.
  • Land-Use Change: Land-use change is driven primarily by agriculture, forestry and urbanization, all of which are associated with air, water and soil pollution. Agricultural expansion, alongside a doubling of the urban area since 1992 and an unprecedented expansion of infrastructure linked to growing population and consumption, has come mostly at the expense of forests (for the greater part, long-established tropical forests), wetlands and grasslands.
  • Infrastructure: The development of roads, cities, hydroelectric dams, and oil and gas pipelines has come with high environmental and social costs, including deforestation, biodiversity loss, and social disruption.
  • Ocean Degradation: Human activities have had a large and widespread negative impact on the world's oceans. Alarmingly, these are running out of oxygen at an unprecedented rate. In addition, coral reefs, being particularly vulnerable to global warming, are projected to decline to between 10 and 30% of their former cover at 1.5°C warming and to less than 1% at 2°C warming.
  • Rising Sea-Levels: Over the past two decades, the global average sea-level, which has risen by 16 to 21 cm since 1900, continued to rise at a rate of more than 3 mm per year. This rise in sea-levels puts between 100 and 300 million people at increased risk of floods, hurricanes and the loss of coastal habitats and protection.
  • Sea-Fishing: In 2015, 33% of sea-fish stocks were being harvested at unsustainable levels; 60% were being fished at their maximum sustainable levels, while only 7% were being harvested at levels lower than can be sustainably fished.
  • Pollinator Loss: Up to US$577 billion in annual global crops are at risk from the loss of pollinators that are disappearing through the extinction of various species of insects and small animals.

Impacts on the Poor and Vulnerable

The areas of the world projected to experience significant negative effects from global changes in climate and declines in biodiversity, ecosystem functions and nature's contributions to people are also areas in which many of the world's poorest communities reside. "Damage done to the earth is also damage done to the most vulnerable, such as indigenous peoples, peasants forced to emigrate, and the inhabitants of urban peripheries", according to Fr Arturo Sosa, Superior-General, the Society of Jesus, writing on 6 February 2019. He continues: "The environmental destruction being caused by the dominant economic system is also inflicting intergenerational damage: not only does it affect those now living on earth, particularly the very young, but it also conditions and jeopardizes the life of future generations". Today we have come to realise that a true ecological approach must always become a social approach so that we "hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor" (LS 49; emphasis in the original). "Climate change will have devastating consequences for people in poverty. Even under the best-case scenario, hundreds of millions will face food insecurity, forced migration, disease, and death. Climate change threatens the future of human rights and risks undoing the last fifty years of progress in development, global health, and poverty reduction".

Public Policies

Around the globe, subsidies with harmful effects on nature have persisted. In 2015, OECD countries provided an estimated $100 billion in financial support to agriculture that was potentially harmful to the environment. In 2017, countries subsidized the fossil fuel industry by $5.2 trillion, or 6.5% of global GDP. Unfortunately, the Madrid Summit on climate change that ended in December 2019 brought fresh doubts about the world's collective resolve to slow the warming of the earth and put a halt to the harmful climate changes that this brings. This failure in political commitment means that the danger remains that global temperatures could rise by at least 3oC before the end of this century, something that would be a recipe for global disaster.

Achieving Environmental Sustainability

Laudato Si' speaks forthrightly about what we must do to "escape the spiral of self-destruction which currently engulfs us": the environmental degradation we are experiencing challenges each one of us to examine our lifestyle (LS, 206). We must promote ways of conserving energy, modifying consumption, developing an economy of waste disposal and recycling, protecting certain species, and planning for diversified agriculture and the rotation of crops (LS, 180). Above all we must modify or reduce consumption; compulsive consumerism is one of the principal factors that has brought planet Earth to its present degraded state. This is also

echoed by the IPBES report which speaks of the importance of lowering total consumption and waste and the need to promote "visions of a good quality of life that do not entail ever-increasing material consumption". The IPBES report and the Pope's encyclical also speak of the need for an education that would encourage people to adopt new habits which would help them to establish harmony with nature and with other living creatures. "Education in environmental responsibility can encourage ways of acting which directly and significantly affect the world around us, such as avoiding the use of plastic and paper, reducing water consumption, separating refuse, cooking only what can reasonably be consumed, showing care for other living beings, using public transport or car-pooling, planting trees, turning off unnecessary lights, or any number of other practices" (LS, 211).

Laudato Si' and the IPBES report are fully in agreement that the time has come to draw the line and to institute a major 'transformative change' - a fundamental, system-wide reorganisation of the technological, economic, political and social features that govern the world today, including its ideals, goals and values. While massive global efforts must extend to the provision of food, water, energy, health and the achievement of human well-being for all, they must do so in ways that will conserve and use nature sustainably. Unless the world adopts sweeping alterations in its technological, economic, political and social features, the projected impacts of increasing land-use change, deforestation, ocean degradation, exploitation of organisms and climate change will ensure that the condition of our common home will continue to deteriorate throughout the years ahead. It is only through urgent and concerted efforts, fostering radical, transformative change, that nature can be conserved, restored and used sustainably. Arresting the dangerous decline in nature, hearing the cry of Mother Earth who cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her (LS, 2), demands radical global, national, local and personal action. This basic awareness of our mutual interdependency and belonging and of a future to be shared with everyone impels us to set out at once on the long path of renewal as we seek new convictions, attitudes and ways of living. "Many things have to change course, but it is we human beings above all who need to change" (LS, 202).


Tags: Fr Michael Kelly, Common Home, IPBES, Laudato Si, Biodiversity, Climate Change, EcoJesuit

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