Why biodiversity matters | Jeff Nowers | Oct 6, 2019
At the July 2019 General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada, a resolution was passed that adopted the global and ecumenical Season of Creation, observed annually throughout September and concluding on October 4 (the feast of St. Francis of Assisi). With that resolution, Anglicans in Canada are now part of a growing movement of Christians from various traditions who have resolved to pray, celebrate, and advocate for creation—to cherish our planet in all its amazing diversity and fragility. We’re now beyond the official end date of the Season of Creation, but here at St. Aidan’s we’re setting aside today and next Sunday (Thanksgiving) to contemplate creation care.
I think our attention to this is very timely. We’re all aware that two weeks from now, voters will go to the polls in an important federal election. In the current campaign period, it is “the environment” that has become a major concern for Canadians. I know a number of Anglican clergy in this city who’ve declared on social media that it’s the only issue that really matters. The reason for this is straightforward: we’re recognizing that climate change is undeniable, that human activity is the culprit, that the planet is warming at a much faster rate than we’d like to believe, and that all of this has ramifications for our health and safety, even survival.
Pope Francis has written a very important encyclical on this matter—titled Laudato Si’—in which he identifies three areas of current ecological crisis. The first is what I’ve just mentioned—climate change and extreme weather patterns that lead to storms and flooding, and droughts in other areas. The second is the diminishing access to fresh drinking water around the globe, particularly in poor communities. It’s a problem that we don’t need to travel far to witness. For instance, on the territory of the Six Nations, near Brantford, only 10% of households can confidently turn on their faucets and drink the water that flows out. The third area that Pope Francis discusses is the loss of biodiversity—the variety and variability of all forms of life.
The impact of climate change and the threats to fresh water are issues that can’t help but trouble us. The loss of biodiversity, however, is something that might not get us worked up as much. Perhaps it’s because we’re tempted to view human life as its own domain, separate from everything else that’s going on in the world. But we don’t live in our own bubble. We walk our dogs, cuddle with our cats, drink milk from cows and goats, eat eggs that hens lay, enjoy honey that bees produce. Some of us, like my father-in-law, tend large flower and vegetable gardens in our yards. I’d like to make a case that biodiversity matters. And we should all be very, very concerned about its decline. Biodiversity matters to our own survival, and it matters to our knowledge and experience of God.
We get a clear indication of the importance of biodiversity from today’s first reading, the well-known Genesis creation story. Before humans appear in the story, we’re told of the creation of vegetation, plants and trees; the sun, moon, and distant stars; marine life large and small; birds and other flying creatures; then land-based animals. This is not incidental information to the creation story. No, biodiversity is integral to what life is and what God is about. Curiously, humans enter the story not at the beginning but at the end. Some might suggest that’s because we are the climax—the most important part—of the creation narrative. Everything that comes before is a mere backdrop to the centrality and triumph of humanity. I don’t accept that reading for at least two reasons: 1) it trivializes the function and significance of non-human life; and 2) it doesn’t provide enough opposition to the manipulation and abuse of non-human life—indeed, of the earth as a whole—which has led us to the ecological crisis of today.
So why does Genesis go to great lengths to account for the emergence of non-human life? I think it’s because human life is utterly dependent on the intricate relations of all other forms of life. In other words, all of creation—from bacteria to polar bears to what is beyond our planet in space—constitutes a sustaining web of life. But here on Earth that web of life is becoming smaller and frayed and prone to disruptions that can have disastrous consequences. Yes, the web of life has always been adapting and evolving. But it has likely never faced the kind of rapid changes that have occurred over the last few decades due to industrial expansion and fossil fuel dependency. It’s estimated that coral reefs sustain 25% of marine life. What will happen if or when they disappear by 2100? I recently learned that one-third of all species of amphibians are threatened with extinction. What effect will that have on the web of life that sustains us? Biodiversity, which is so central to the ancient Hebrew creation story, is now under serious threat.
That leads me to my final point. Let me suggest that the intricate web of life underscored by biodiversity is the very locus of God’s own life. God is not, and never has been, far off, dwelling beyond the skies in “heaven.” Human exploration of space has not revealed to us “heaven” as such; we’ve rather discovered that creation extends far beyond our planet and solar system. Many scientists now doubt that the universe even has an outer limit. So where can God be in all of this if not in the very evolving depths of the web of life? We find God at the heart of the incredible diversity of creation, where myriad species give glory to God by their very existence. But I wonder: if the web of life is threatened, is our knowledge and experience of God put in jeopardy? Is God’s glory diminished?
How do we respond to this crisis? It can seem overwhelming and paralyzing and beyond us. That’s why the environmental activist Bill McKibben has said that the first step anyone must take in tackling the ecological crisis is to stop acting as an individual. We need to act together. I know there is tremendous energy here at St. Aidan’s for that to happen. This past August, Michael Van Dusen led a book study of Pope Francis’ encyclical, and I was amazed at the desire for action and the ideas generated and shared between each study session. Let’s keep these conversations going. Talk to each other. Talk to our neighbors. Share and learn. And then let’s organize. Our collective future depends on biodiversity, and our faith hangs in the balance.