Species extinction: Preserving diversity in creation

June 10th, 2019

The threat of extinction

In May, the United Nations Environment Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services released a report stating that approximately one million plant and animal species are facing the threat of extinction. The authors note that climate change, ocean pollution, agricultural practices and expanding human land use all contribute to the issues faced by these species. Another study released earlier this year found that over 40% of insect species may also be headed toward extinction.

With so many difficult issues facing our planet, the preservation of plants and insects might seem like a low priority. Haven’t plenty of species become extinct in the past? Don’t we have a responsibility to enrich human lives before saving other species? These are certainly important considerations, but the fact that these extinction-level threats are overwhelmingly caused by human actions should give us pause.

In the Creation stories of Genesis, we’re told that humans are made in the image of God to care for the rest of earth; yet even then we’re reminded that humanity is only a small part of creation. This raises an interesting question: Do life-forms that humans never observe or places that humans never go have value to God in and of themselves? God’s observation that each element of creation is good, along with the many passages in the Bible where creation is said to worship God with its very being, all suggest that the answer is yes.

Relying on the natural world

The authors of the United Nations report emphasize that the dangers presented by species extinction aren’t limited to only the plants and animals at risk. The loss of so many species would also disrupt ecosystems that humans and other living things depend upon for their survival. For instance, in many settings insects are necessary to pollinate plants, including plants that serve as food sources. The disruption of ocean ecosystems is likely to be catastrophic for coastal communities that depend on ocean life for both food and tourism. Many plants and animals also possess unique properties that have long been sources of medicinal knowledge and have prompted the development of many drugs. On a broader scale, ecosystems are more resilient when they contain a diversity of species.

When God created the world, it was designed to be an interconnected web of life. Today people often think of “nature” as a place we visit over the weekend or a remote jungle or desert landscape studied by scientists, but in truth we’re all a part of the natural world. Just as our actions have effects on the survival of plant and animal species, their existence is also essential to ours.

Problems and solutions

The United Nations report emphasizes that while species are endangered by many factors, all are related to human development in some way or another. One of the biggest threats is climate change, which is altering the habitats of many species, killing coral reefs due to higher water temperatures, and changing weather patterns. Another factor is land use. As human populations grow, urban areas spread, and more land is devoted to agricultural uses. Many farms, in turn, use herbicides and pesticides to protect their crops, which often means killing valuable species. Beyond this, ocean pollution due to agricultural runoff, industrial waste, and plastics also contributes to declines in marine life.

Even though none of these actions on the part of humans are undertaken with the intention of destroying plant and animal species, the unintended consequences show us how fully our lives are woven into the life of the planet. When we think about our actions in political or social settings, we usually try to take the effects on other community members into account. Similarly, when faced with the extinction of so many species, we must ask whether we also have a responsibility to them.

Human land use and economic development are inescapable parts of our lives on this planet. However, from the beginning of the industrial age until now, humans have typically pursued these goals by the easiest and cheapest means possible with little regard for long-term consequences. The United Nations report notes that we’ve accepted the belief that a healthy economy necessitates unlimited growth. In fact, the threat of species extinction shows us that when this economic growth depends on extracting or destroying natural resources, a growing economy can actively make our planet sick.

The 150 scientists who contributed to this report warn of dire consequences if we do nothing, but they also say there’s still time to protect these species. As it is, when governments and businesses create development plans and processes, their equations frequently don’t include the value of the ecosystems or resources they may be destroying or extracting.

Some of the proposed solutions are simple. For instance, reducing the amount of food wasted worldwide would lower the amount of land needed for agricultural purposes. Pollution and overfishing can be regulated, even if regulations are a nuisance to businesses. Other issues are more complicated. Less destructive and equally productive agricultural practices, for example, are possible, but their implementation would radically alter the global food system in a way that would be hard to gauge.

The report ultimately recognizes that combatting all of the major problems facing the world’s species, including climate change, would require “transformative change.” To protect one million species of God’s creatures, humans will have to act courageously to imagine a different world.


Learning from indigenous peoples

The United Nations report notes that land owned or managed by “indigenous peoples” is deteriorating less rapidly than land under development by governments, businesses, and commercial farms. Moreover, much of the land where the greatest number of at-risk species live is managed by indigenous peoples or small local communities. Despite this, their wisdom regarding land use has generally not been consulted as scientists, economists, and policymakers discuss how to move toward sustainability.

Over centuries, many of these communities have developed an intimate knowledge of land management techniques, ecological observations, and farming methods that benefit humans without harming ecosystems. Honoring this wisdom is one of the most important steps a business or government can take in prioritizing biodiversity and strengthening the ecosystems humans depend upon.

Perhaps more importantly, making choices that recognize human dependence on the environment and their responsibility to protect it is often a value embedded in the cultures of these communities. While the industrial-age approach to the environment has largely been to extract or destroy resources for short-term gain, indigenous peoples often consider long-term consequences to the environment as part of every habit and every decision.

Inviting these groups to lead the process of imagining a more sustainable world will require repentance, restitution, and utmost respect for the traditions and communities that have always prioritized caring for the creation.

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups.

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