One in five species on Earth now faces extinction, and that will rise to 50% by the end of the century unless urgent action is taken. That is the stark view of the world’s leading biologists, ecologists and economists who will gather on Monday to determine the social and economic changes needed to save the planet’s biosphere.
“The living fabric of the world is slipping through our fingers without our showing much sign of caring,” say the organisers of the Biological Extinctionconference held at the Vatican this week.
Threatened creatures such as the tiger or rhino may make occasional headlines, but little attention is paid to the eradication of most other life forms, they argue. But as the conference will hear, these animals and plants provide us with our food and medicine. They purify our water and air while also absorbing carbon emissions from our cars and factories, regenerating soil, and providing us with aesthetic inspiration.
“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?”
Monday’s meeting is one of a series set up by the Vatican on ecological issues – which Pope Francishas deemed an urgent issue for the Catholic church. “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 not everyone is happy about the meeting. The involvement of Ehrlich – who believes that wider use of birth control is needed to halt the world’s spiralling population – has been denounced by many conservative Catholics. They have set up a petition calling for the pope to withdraw the invitation for him to speak on Monday. “I believe they have about 11,000 signatures,” Ehrlich told the Observer. “The pope has not changed his mind, however.”