In May, Biological Reviews released a massive report on the global-scale decline of animal biodiversity. After surveying 71,000 animal species from across the planet, they found that 48 percent of those animals — just under half — are undergoing a decline. The study, written by scientists Catherine Finn, Florencia Grattarola, and Daniel Pincheira-Donoso, also found that of those animal species surveyed, only 3 percent have been increasing in population size.
The situation is dire but U.S. climate policy is not changing. While lawmakers in the U.S. are stuck at tax credits for electric vehicles, a sixth mass extinction event is already here. Electric vehicles and small-scale conservation efforts can’t fix this.
There are two problems at hand: First, there is a material problem. Humans, especially humans in the richest nations, are producing and consuming too much, which not only contributes to pollution, but also increases emissions and causes a never-ending sprawl of unsustainable land use. This ultimately displaces animals from their habitats. The second problem is a spiritual problem: Humans have become so alienated from other nonhuman species that they no longer recognize themselves as a part of creation. Instead, humans view themselves as above it.
The scientists behind the Biological Reviews study point out a complex, yet important, problem: Declining animal populations demonstrates the severity of our situation, which is pushing our planet past a number of climate boundaries. One way that biologists estimate extinction risk is with a list kept by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The IUCN’s “Red List” uses several different data points to assess a specie’s risk of extinction. The red wolf, for example, is critically endangered, and its population is trending downward due to a number of human factors such as transportation and service corridors.
But the study from Biological Reviews found that for the species currently classified as “non-threatened” by the IUCN, 33 percent are declining. In an interview with CNN, Pincheira-Donoso, explained: “[What the] study shows is not whether species are currently classed as threatened or not, but instead, whether their population sizes are becoming rapidly and progressively smaller or not.” This finding reveals that more species than previously thought may be heading toward extinction. And if nothing changes, the mass extinction of animals will cascade, causing catastrophes in all areas of human life, and will drastically impact the production of food and medicine.
With this in mind, it is imperative that we listen to Brazilian liberation theologian Leonardo Boff who argues that if we can commit ourselves to addressing the political and spiritual problems at the root of climate change and the loss of biodiversity, then there’s still hope for some reconciliation between humans and nature. But in order to get to this reconciliation, we’ve got to learn how to listen to nature.
Drawing on the life of the 13th-century itinerant preacher St. Francis of Assisi, Boff argues that we must reconfigure how we think about democracy. Because humans are a part of the created world and our lives depend on complex systems in which nonhuman creatures play integral roles, we need a type of political and spiritual philosophy that draws those nonhuman creatures into the democratic equation.
Boff calls this “cosmic democracy” in his book Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor. Democracy is about being ruled by people rather than being ruled by monarchs or despots. But because our lives are intertwined with the world we live in, humans need to forge political alliances with nonhuman creatures in dynamic ways. In the U.S., Democrats and Republicans barely managed to negotiate the debt ceiling so that the government could have a functioning budget. But humans need to realize that we’re failing in negotiations with our environment and, as a result, we are facing climate catastrophe. Mandating space to conserve and rehabilitate dwindling species, cutting emissions, and learning to use the land in a sustainable way are critical steps to contributing to a lasting union between humans, nonhumans, and the planet.
In his book Francis of Assisi, Boff notes how Francis tried to forge this lasting union “with all things.” Thomas of Celano, a 13th-century monk and one of the earliest biographers of Francis, said that Francis “called all creatures his brothers and sisters, like one who had arrived in the glorious freedom of the children of God.” Francis recognized that to be close to Jesus, one had to be close to the things that were considered to be the lowest in the social order. That meant taking a vow of poverty and even recognizing the sun, moon, animals, rocks, and plants as “siblings.” From this perspective, democracy is something that emphasizes the rule of the people but also considers the vast web of interconnected nonhuman species that are necessary for the survival of our planet.
Boff’s Francis-inspired cosmic democracy isn’t just about striving for clearer and more direct democracies; it’s also about cultivating a new spiritual practice focused on recognizing that human life relies on nonhuman life and the environment. Can we reorient ourselves in the world so that we can hear the cries of the poor and the cries of creation? Can we factor their cries into our politics?
In some cases, we must rely on the work of scientists to help make nonhuman life communicable and understandable — as is the case with the study from Biological Reviews. Yet in other instances, the cries of creation seem less ambiguous.
For example, that of orca whales reacting to boats. An orca attack is rare behavior, but scientists suggest two possible reasons behind them: One possibility is that it’s simply a fad — yes, orcas have fads — among the Iberian killer whale population. The other possibility is that this is learned behavior in reaction to a negative experience with a boat.
Assigning discrete purposes and motivations to the behavior of animals is tricky and, in the end, hypothetical. But these orcas are a critically endangered species who, because of their migratory food source, often come into contact with human boats. Alfredo López Fernandez, a biologist with the Atlantic Orca Working Group, told Live Science: “The orcas are doing this on purpose, of course, we don’t know the origin or the motivation, but defensive behavior based on trauma, as the origin of all this, gains more strength for us every day.” While hypothetical, imagining that orcas have developed a negative association with human boats isn’t out of the question. The possible disharmony between orcas and humans is worth our attention and consideration.
Learning to listen to nonhumans opens a number of new political possibilities with regard to the environment and climate change. Rather than trying to wean humans off our addiction to fossil fuels with half-measures like electric vehicles, we can advocate for policies and strategies that support the life of nonhuman animals, like rewilding.
Rewilding is a progressive conservation strategy that sets aside land and lets natural processes restore a region’s biodiversity. Rewilding isn’t only good for animals, but it also helps humans by restoring integral ecological systems necessary for food. According to a study done in the journal Nature, if 15 percent of degraded areas were restored through conservation and rewilding efforts, then those areas would avoid 60 percent of expected species extinctions.
Advocating for the good of humanity requires creating alliances with the orcas and other species whose populations are in critical condition. It’s these types of political alliances that could end up saving humans and millions of other species in the process.
Human production and consumption is ushering in a new extinction event that could, if left unchecked, destroy the entire planet. Not only do we need political solutions, but we also need a spiritual shift. It’s time for Christians to follow the lead of Francis and establish a friendly union with nature, advocating for our nonhuman kin.