In the timeline of the Earth, there have been five major cataclysmic mass extinction events that caused life on Earth to cease either almost completely or definitely.
The first occurred around the end-Ordovician period around 450 million years ago. The Ordovician period was marked by a diversity of marine invertebrates. With the presence of tetrahedral spores dating to this era that has been recently been unearth, scientists postulate that this period also saw the start of primitive land plant forms. Towards the end of this time period, the temperature dropped suddenly causing the Earth to undergo its first Ice Age, and tremendous glaciers were formed. This caused shallow seas to drain and sea levels to drop. The oceans experienced massive coral reef disturbances (primitive coral forms were found fossilised and dating back to this time) due to the change in the global climate, and many oceanic ecosystems collapsed. The implications of this global rapid cooling, resulted in 60% of all marine invertebrate genera or principal taxonomic categories that ranked above species and below family taxonomies, and 25% of all animal families to go extinct (Speer, Avildsen, Bie, Patel, & Sarvis, 1998).
The late Devonian period around 419.2 million years to 358.9 million years ago saw cycles of extinction, lasting over a prolonged 20 million years as oxygen levels in the ocean waters fell repeatedly and cyclically (House, 2021).
This was followed by a mass extinction event that affected the Earth most profoundly: The End-Permian Extinction around 251 million years ago. In this event, environmental factors and perturbations such as a sudden expansion of microbial entities, a rapid rise of environmental temperature hovering around 8 degree Celsius, elevated atmospheric carbon, caused by what scientists propose to be a prolonged volcanic event, led to a global phenomenon that saw an unprecedented loss of about 95% of marine species and 75% of terrestrial species. This marked the Earth’s worse Mass Extinction of life forms to date (Shen & Bowring, 2014; Erwin, 1990; 2006; Benton 2003; Benton & Twitchett, 2003). A more recent event in 1783 corroborates what could have happened: A volcano, Laki had erupted in Iceland, and the ensuing carbon dioxide and methane that was released into the atmosphere together with ash and dust particles caused atmospheric temperatures to plummet 2 degree Celsius (Hoffman, n.d.). It is thus highly probable that a widespread volcanic activity lasting a significant amount of time, could thus be instrumental in shifting the atmospheric conditions significantly enough so as to cause a mass extinction.
Subsequently, there were 2 other mass extinction events: The end of the Triassic period around 200 million years ago, and the one with which we are all familiar: The end-Cretaceous period around 66 million years ago, where scientists posit that an incoming colliding asteroid in the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico, forming what is today called the Chicxulub impact crater, occurred. It has been approximated that half of the world’s species went extinct at about this time (Koch & Hansen, 2020).
Scientists are now postulating that the sixth mass extinction event could possibly be caused by the Anthropocene age – by humans themselves who are wreaking havoc on the climate. About slightly more than a decade ago, the Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report presented at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in Valencia, Spain (2007) reported that Earth is facing unprecedented changes in the climate as exacerbated by human activity. As global trends show, the Earth is warming rapidly and without reversal, resulting in increases in global air and ocean temperatures, and devastatingly widespread melting of glaciers, ice, and snow, in turn causing rising sea levels, and wonky weather conditions across the Earth. The already happening effects are seen in the loss and extinction of biodiversity, for example the migration of certain fish to colder waters, coupled with other species such as polar bears rapidly losing the landmass in the form of ice floes to which they inhabit, live, and hunt. These years have also seen an increased incidence of freak weather phenomena, such as higher probabilities of flash floods, droughts, and heat waves, in places where these previously were not the norm.
The exhortation by our Holy Father, Pope Francis, Laudato Si (2015) is thus relevant and timely as the Church grapples with the questions of what is meant to exercise our stewardship over God’s creation, and how we may come together to care for the common home that we live in. The encyclical letter opens with the words,
“LAUDATO SI’, mi’ Signore” – “Praise be to you, my Lord”. In the words of this beautiful canticle, Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs”.
2. This sister 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. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Rom 8:22). We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters (Pope Francis, 2015. Paras 1 and 2)
The themes that have been explored in Laudato Si are not new and should not come as a surprise to us. In 1971, Blessed Pope Paul VI, in his Apostolic Letter Octogesima Adveniens wrote how humanity while being charged with the stewardship of creation, has nonetheless frivolously and carelessly exploited nature to the point of completely devastating it. He warns that if humanity does not amend its ways in a timely fashion and most radically, then it faces the consequences of becoming inheritors of this horrendous abasement of nature and its aftermath.
Pope Saint John Paul II (2001) in his General Audience also weighed in on the issue of ecology and stewardship, asking the Faithful to head towards a conversion that is ecological in nature. He says,
We must therefore encourage and support the “ecological conversion” which in recent decades has made humanity more sensitive to the catastrophe to which it has been heading. Man is no longer the Creator’s “steward”, but an autonomous despot, who is finally beginning to understand that he must stop at the edge of the abyss. (Para. 4)
Six years on, Laudato Si, continues to present themes that are prophetic and that which cry out for our attention and urgent response:
- A Spiritual and Moral Conversion – the encroaching and already happening ecological tipping point and crisis, is an ongoing invitation to an interior conversion that allows the Christian to re-discover and to renew our relationship with God the Maker and Creator of all things, with each other as partakers and sharers of this common home, and with the whole of Creation. As St. Paul puts eloquently,
For creation awaits with eager expectation the revelation of the children of God; for creation was made subject to futility, not of its own accord but because of the one who subjected it, in hope that creation itself would be set free from slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that all creation is groaning in labour pains even until now, and not only that, but we ourselves, who have the first-fruits of the Spirit, we also groan within ourselves as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. (Romans 8: 19-23)
- Stewardship and Care for God’s Creation – We are not God, yet as trustworthy servants of God, we have been tasked with the responsibility of looking after Creation in a way that is expected of us, and that which is pleasing to God. Creation has been given to humanity as a Grace and as a Gift, and protecting this creation, and the dignity of human persons so interwoven into creation, is part and parcel of our intrinsic call as fellow human sisters and brothers. We are called to be keepers of one another. (cf. Genesis 4:9)
- Human Beings are all Connected – Our actions or omissions affect not only ourselves, but the people around us, and the generations following ours to come. We are connected to the rest of the human family in ways that may even astound us, and as human beings we exist within and as a part of Creation.
- The Exponential Impact on the Poor – The people living in abject poverty are very often made unfair inheritors of the mistakes and the sins that they did not commit. The poor have contributed the least to climate change, yet bear the brunt of the selfishness and irresponsibility of others. It is the poor who are most affected by the aftermath of pollution, contamination, and a lack of access to sanitisation, hygiene, clean water, sustainable produce, and unfair farming and trading tactics that drive food prices too high for the poor to be able to afford something to eat.
- An Invitation to Solidarity and Subsidiarity – We have a shared responsibility for everyone living on Earth. Affluent nations for example, have a responsibility to ensure that poorer nations are not left behind, and that responsible and sustainable use of non-renewal resources, allow the poorer nations to participate fully in progress.
- A Technology by People and for People – Technology and its advances and developments need to be at the service of people, and work in tandem to dignify people, rather than enslaving or creating a world where there is a divide between the Haves and Have-nots. Technology and its developments thus need to bring about a more inclusive world so that everyone would have equitable and fair access to what is needed to develop the human person.
- The Protection and the Support of Creation – A care and concern for creation is futile if this is not complemented with the protection of society’s most vulnerable, such as refugees, victims of human trafficking, unborn persons, and people who are differently abled.
- A Favourable Time to Act – There is an urgency in the call to change the ways we live and the ways that we are responding to this widespread ecological crisis. As individuals, families, communities, and as civil and political people with influence and clout, we can make a difference and contribute to a better world.
- Becoming Channels of Peace, Hope, and Joy – Taking a cue from St. Francis of Asissi, we can exist side-by-side in harmony with nature and creation. We can also be ambassadors of hope, joy, and peace to each and every person we encounter. How we live is how someone else will encounter the living witnessing of God and his Providential Love for humanity. It is possible to live our lives in the way that God intended us to live as in the garden of Eden.
Inherent in these themes, is a Call to Action. We cannot be mere passive by-standers any more, but empowered by the Gospel values have to step up in faith to be the change that we would like the world to be.
Some tangible steps for action:
As an Individual
- Recycle if you can
- Reduce the use of single-use disposables
- Find ways to reduce water consumption
- Share a meal with a neighbour
- Plant a tree
- Conserve Electricity
- Use public transportation
- Reduce food waste
- Contribute to a charity
As a Parish, School or at Work
- Ensuring that learning about caring for God’s Creation is a shared responsibility and requisite as part of the ethos of the school, parish formation, and work place.
- Do an energy audit, to see which areas may be improved.
- Choose to use a cleaner source of energy such as solar power. The initial investments work out to heft and substantial savings over the years.
- Use washable cups, crockery, and utensils at events.
- Consider Farm to Table arrangements and pick vendors who have a commitment to sustainability.
- Offer employment benefits to encourage the use of public transportation or car-pooling.
- Carry out a social enterprise where good quality left-overs are distributed to the poor.
- Work with other communities to care for God’s Creation, such as community beach clean-ups.
- Initiate and implement recycling and composting programmes.
As a Community and Society
- Work with stakeholders to explore business models using clean energy, sustainable methods, and reduce harmful emissions.
- Work with the authorities to provide Community Gardens and Community Refrigerators for the poor in the neighbourhood.
- Provide upskilling and learning programmes to help address the needs of unemployment, and minister to job-seekers.
- Minister to the migrant worker community.
- Consider how we can allow the Holy Spirit to move us toward innovative, creative solutions that create jobs and care for people and God’s creation.
The care for Creation is a shared responsibility and we can all do our part to make this a world that our children’s children will still be able to enjoy.
Let us pray that the Holy Spirit whose breath brought all Creation to being, will lead and guide us to the ways which we can best respond to the task of careful and prayerful stewardship of God’s Creation.
By the Grace of God,
Brian Bartholomew Tan
Benton, M. J. (2003). When life nearly died: the greatest mass extinction of all time. London, UK: Thames & Hudson
Benton M.J, & Twitchett R.J. (2003). How to kill (almost) all life: the end-Permian extinction event. Trends Ecol. Evol. 18. 358–365. doi:10.1016/S0169-5347(03)00093-4
Erwin D.H. (1990) The end-Permian mass extinction. Annu. Rev. Ecol. Syst.21. 69–91. doi:10.1146/annurev.es.21.110190.000441
Erwin D.H. (2006). Extinction: how life on Earth nearly ended 250 million years ago. Princeton University Press.
Hoffman, H. J. (n.d.). The Permian Extinction – When Life Nearly Came to an End. National Geographic. Retrieved September 30, 2021, from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/permian-extinction
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. (2007). Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report. [Dataset] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Retrieved September 30, 2021, from https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/2018/02/ar4_syr_spm.pdf
House, M. R. (2021, May 3). Devonian Period. Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved September 30, 2021, from https://www.britannica.com/science/Devonian-Period
Koch, C., F., & Hansen, A., T., (2020, April 1). Cretaceous Period. Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved September 30, from https://www.britannica.com/science/Cretaceous-Period
Pope Francis. (2015). Laudato Si. Libreria Editrice Vaticana
Pope John Paul II. (2001, January 17). General Audience. Libreria Editrice Vaticana
Pope Paul VI. (1974). Octogesima Adveniens. Libreria Editrice Vaticana
Shen, S-Z., & Bowring, S. A. (2014) The end-Permian mass extinction: a still unexplained catastrophe, National Science Review, 1(4) 492–495, https://doi.org/10.1093/nsr/nwu047
Speer, B., Avidsen, C., Bie, J., Patel, C., & Sarvis. (1998). The Ordovician Period. UC Museum of Paleontology. Berkley University of California. Retrieved September 30, 2021 from https://ucmp.berkeley.edu/ordovician/ordovician.php