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Doris Duke Chair of Conservation Ecology, Duke University; Author, The World According to Pimm: a Scientist Audits the Earth
J. M. Bergoglio’s 2015 Review of Global Ecology

2015 saw the publication of an impressive tour d’horizon of global ecology. Covering many areas, it assesses human impacts on the loss of biodiversity, the subject that falls within my expertise. Like all good reviews, it’s well documented, comprehensive, and contains specific suggestions for future research. Much of it has a familiar feel, though it’s a bit short on references from Nature and Science. But that’s not what makes this review news. Rather, it’s because it reached a well-defined 1.2 billion people around plus uncountable others. That’s a billion with a “b,” likely putting the citation impact statistics of other recent science stories into the shade. The publication is “On care for our common home” and its author is better known as Pope Francis.

How much ecology is there in this? And how good is it? Well, the word “ecology” (or similar) appears eighty times, “biodiversity” twelve, and “ecosystem” twenty-five. There’s a 1400 word section on the loss of biodiversity—the right length for a letter to Nature.

The biodiversity section starts with a statement that the “earth’s resources are also being plundered because of short-sighted approaches to the economy, commerce and production.” It tells us that deforestation is a major driver of species loss. As for the importance of the topic, it explains why a diversity of species are import as sources of food, medicines and other uses, while “different species contain genes which could be key resources in years ahead for meeting human needs and regulating environmental problems.” A high rate of extinction raises ethical issues, particularly those involving where our current actions limit what future generations can use or enjoy.

We learn that most of what we know about extinction comes from studying birds and mammals. In a sentence that E.O. Wilson might have written, it praises the small things that rule the world. “The good functioning of ecosystems also requires fungi, algae, worms, insects, reptiles and an innumerable variety of microorganisms. Some less numerous species, although generally unseen, nonetheless play a critical role in maintaining the equilibrium of a particular place.”

There is no point in a complete catalogue, but this short list exemplifies its insights and comprehensiveness.

Knocking pieces from any complex system—in this case species from ecosystems—can have unexpected effects.

Technology has benefits, but the idea of unbridled technological optimism was my Edge choice two years ago of an “idea that must die.” Bergoglio expresses that eloquently with “We seem to think that we can substitute an irreplaceable and irretrievable beauty with something which we have created ourselves.”

We not only destroy habitats, but we massively fragment those that remain behind. The solution is to create biological corridors.

“When certain species are exploited commercially, little attention is paid to studying their reproductive patterns in order to prevent their depletion and the consequent imbalance of the ecosystem.”

There has been significant progress in establishing protected areas on land and in the oceans.

There are concerns about the Amazon and the Congo, the last remaining large blocks of tropical forests. There are concerns about replacing native forests with tree plantations that are so much poorer in species.

Overfishing and discarding large amounts of bycatch diminish the oceans’ ability to support fisheries. Human actions physically damage the seabed across vast areas, massively changing the composition of the species that live there.

It ends with a statement that might be from a Policy Forum in Science arguing as it does for increased effort and funding. 

Greater investment needs to be made in research aimed at understanding more fully the functioning of ecosystems and adequately analysing the different variables associated with any significant modification of the environment. Because all creatures are connected, each must be [conserved], for all … are dependent on one another. … This will require undertaking a careful inventory of the species which it hosts, with a view to developing programmes and strategies of protection with particular care for safeguarding species heading towards extinction.

In this, I’ve changed only the word “cherished” to “conserved.”

Reading the biodiversity section again, having just finished teaching my graduate conservation class, made me think it would make an outstanding course outline next year. Its coverage is impressive, its topics of global significance. Its research is strikingly up to date and hints at very active controversies. To answer my questions: yes, there is lots of ecology and it’s of a very high order, too.

The publication’s other lengthy sections include sections on pollution, climate change, water, urbanization, social inequality and its environmental consequences, both the promise and threat of technology, inter-generational equity, policies both local and global. All these topics would appear in a course on global ecology. This is not why the publication made news.

Rather, it’s an incontestable statement of the importance of science in shaping what are the ethical choices of our generation—both for Catholics and those of us who are not. It appeals for all religions and all scientists to grasp this enormity of the problems that the science of ecology has uncovered and to seek their solutions urgently. The author deserves the last word—and it is a good one—on how we should do that:

Nonetheless, science and religion, with their distinctive approaches to understanding reality, can enter into an intense dialogue fruitful for both. Given the complexity of the ecological crisis and its multiple causes, we need to realize that the solutions will not emerge from just one way of interpreting and transforming reality. ... If we are truly concerned to develop an ecology capable of remedying the damage we have done, no branch of the sciences and no form of wisdom can be left out, and that includes religion and the language particular to it.