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Environmental concerns

The impairment of the ecosphere:
animals, fish, birds, plants, & water

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For about 3.8 billion years, the ecosphere has been developing into an extremely complex system of different forms of life in close interaction. 1 All these forms are an integral part of nature, to be appreciated and respected. The non-human world is not there for exploitation - its value is to be recognized.

The great number of different plant and animal species make up the ecosystem stable. The elimination of one species affects the whole and disturbs its balance - it has a knock-on effect on estimated 18 to 30 other species. 2,3 Yet the insatiable demands of our global economy constantly reduces the complexity of nature:

bulletHerds of domesticated animals replace interrelated animal species.
bulletVast expanses of high-yield monocultures replace complex plant ecosystems.
bulletSome species, both animal and plant are being eliminated,
bulletand so on. 4

At this moment we are going through an extinction spasm, caused mainly by habitat degradation, environmental pollution, the introduction of non-native species, and exploitation. In particular, human activity has destroyed areas that are species-rich, like the tropical rain forests and coral reefs. If we continue with the present business-as-usual approach, half the species of the planet could be extinct within 50 years. 1

Since the year 1600, 83 known mammal species and 113 bird species have become extinct, 5 In 2003 the World Conservation Union's Red List claimed that more than 12,000 species (out of 40,000 assessed) faced some extinction risk, including one bird in eight, 13% of the world's flowering plants, and a quarter of all mammals. (It was assumed that there may be some 13-14 million various species in the world in total.) Other estimates of the extinction rates vary, but all of them show how serious the situation is:

bulletSince 1600, more than 700 species of plants and animals have gone extinct. This only includes the plants and animals we know of. 6
bulletAccording to Tim Radford, species are now perishing at 1,000, or even 10,000 times, the 'background extinction.'
bulletThere are 794 species that will disappear soon unless urgent measures are taken. 7
bulletHuman activity causes the extinction of between 70 and 150 species of animal, bird, fish, insect, and plant life each day. 3
bulletA probable estimate is that about one hundred species (of microorganisms, plants, and animals) are becoming extinct each day.
bulletAs a result of our activities, it is probable that hundreds of species are being made extinct every day. 8
bulletEdward Wilson estimated that 27,000 species were being lost each year. 9
bulletThe study The Global Environment Outlook, published in 2002 by the United Nations Environment Program, stated that if we continue with a business-as-usual approach, by 2032 one quarter of the mammals would be extinct, and 11,000 species of plant and 1,200 species of birds would be heading over the abyss of extinction. 1
bulletThe present mass extinction threatens to wipe out one third to one half of all the species in the world in the next 40 years. 10
bulletOne estimate suggests that hundreds of thousands wildlife species may be at risk of extinction by 2050 because of climate change. 11
bulletDavid Attenborough claimed that unless major protective measures are taken now, we could lose up to half the species of our world in the next 50-100 years. 12
bulletPaul and Anne Ehrlich estimate that, given the present rate of destruction, 25% of all life forms on Earth could be extinguished by 2100. 13
bulletIf present trends continue, on half of all species of life on earth will be extinct in 100 years. 14

The most comprehensive information on mass extinction, with more than 300 links to authoritative reports and regular updates, can be found at: http://www.well.com/

Our generation is extinguishing life-forms in a rather off-hand manner. Consider, for example, the effect of the demand for coral to decorate house aquaria. This casual attitude towards the environment can sometimes have rather serious consequences, and our pillage of the natural world. It has been likened to burning down the medieval libraries of Europe, before we had even bothered to catalogue their content. 15 A typical example is provided by the cone snails 16 which are decimated by habitat destruction (coral reefs are destroyed by human activity), overexploitation and trade (millions of cone snails are now killed annually for their shells). All this happens in spite of the fact that the snails are famous for containing toxins working as analgesics to treat chronic pain, cancer, heart irregularities, and many other afflictions. For example, one toxin may be a thousand times more potent than morphine for pain relief. And yet, although the tropical cone snails may contain the largest and most important pharmacopoeia of any genus in nature, they could rapidly become extinct if urgent measures are not taken to protect them. This is particularly urgent, because to date only 100 out of a potential 50,000 conotoxins have been extracted and analyzed. 16

Some claim that we are causing species extinction at such a rate as if to mark the end of the Cenozoic era. Others compare the current rate of extinction to earlier geological periods, the Jurassic and Permian. While this picture of the state of the environment has created pessimism among many and denials among others, there is no doubt that human decisions in the immediate future will be crucial for the survival of many life forms on earth. Political, economic, and religious leaders need to take decisive action if some 11,000 species are not to get extinct in the next 50-100 years. In this context it should be noted that the US have not signed either the Convention on Biodiversity or the Cartagena Protocol on Bio-safety.

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Notes on animals and birds:

Animals were not made for human beings any more than human beings were made for animals. Almost no animals kill, like humans do, for the sake of killing, but there is, of course, plenty of cruelty in the animal world. For example, Jean Henri Fabré reported that:

"Before laying her egg in a caterpillar or a grasshopper or a bee, a female digger wasp carefully guides her sting into each ganglion of the prey's central nervous system. This paralyses the animal but does not kill it, and the meat stays fresh for the growing larva."

The idea is appalling, but by no stretch of imagination does it give us the right to hurt the animals ourselves. Neither callous attitude to animals, nor practices that are intuitively perceived to be contrary to the spirit of avoidance of unnecessary cruelty to animals, should be tolerated.

Two examples are:

bulletBattery chickens spend their entire life crammed into tiny cages with sloping wire floors that cause painful foot and leg problems. Week-old chicks are de-beaked by a hot blade that cuts through the sensitive nerve tissue and causes severe pain. Battery hens can never spread their wings, scratch in the earth, perch or make a nest, dust-bathe, search for food that is tasty, or even walk or run. Instead, five hens are packed into a cage slightly bigger than an average microwave oven, and are never allowed out until they are taken for slaughter. Two million battery hens die each year in their cages. The male chicks, 40 million of them each year, are killed when they are day old - too skinny for meat, unable to lay eggs. Their bodies are used as fertilizers or as feed for farm animals.
bulletIn Australia, 2.5 million pigs are intensively confined in factory farms, 50 million broiler chicken are crammed into sheds, and 12 million laying hens are held in battery cages. 17

At present, any hope for the protection of animals seems to be coming from economic considerations and not ethical ones. However, consider the following practice:

bulletTo kill animals without damaging their furs, trappers usually strangle, beat, or stomp them to death. Animals on fur farms may be gassed, electrocuted, poisoned with strychnine, or have their necks snapped. These methods are not 100% effective, and some animals 'wake up' while being skinned!

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Notes on fishes:

A global study published in Nature (which took 10 years to complete) concludes that 90% of all large fishes have disappeared from the world's oceans in the past half-century, the devastating result of industrial fishing. This started in the early 1950, and the global fish catch grew more than six times from 1950 to 1997. 18 However, the peak was reached in 1989 at 100 million metric tonnes. Since then there was a fall of 2% per year. 19 The overfishing of a particular species does not just damage the population of that fish alone, but can have serious effects up the food chain. Examples: Herring is vital for the cod, the sand-eel is the main food for seabirds such as the puffin, krill are the main food for the great whales, seals, penguins, squid, and fish.

Most of the problems associated with over-fishing have been caused by advances in fishing technology. Huge factory ships (with equipment to tin or freeze fish) scoop everything up from the ocean; radar technology has allowed fish to be located much more precisely than was possible before. As the catches have gradually become smaller, the mesh sizes in fishing nets have been reduced, allowing smaller and smaller fishes to be caught. Fishes that were not allowed to grow to a respectable size. Those too small to be used for food are crushed to be made into either animal food or fertilizers. Fishing with nets has another disadvantage: It is indiscriminate. For example, for every tonne of prawns caught, three tonnes of fish are killed and thrown away. 20,000 porpoises die each year in the nets of salmon fishermen, and tens of thousands of dolphins are killed each year by tuna fishermen. 20

Mangrove swamps and coral reefs, the breeding grounds for a variety of fish, are dynamited, over-fished, drained, and destroyed.

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Notes on plants:

Plant life is absolutely dependent on a thin, fragile layer of topsoil, and it is estimated that 75 billion tonnes of topsoil is lost world-wide each year. 21 Asia is the most seriously affected, losing 25 billion tonnes per year. Together with a very high population this is a recipe for disaster. The US and Australia lose 5 billion tonnes each. 21

Humans use up some 40% of the planet's potential plant production either by direct consumption or in indirect ways. People will have to change to the prevalently direct consumption pattern in order to have any realistic hope of feeding themselves. Namely, it is an inescapable fact that many more people can survive eating a corn crop as can survive eating cattle that had been fed on this corn. Far more people could be fed with the food produced in the world if less of it were not converted into pigs, sheep, or cattle. Unfortunately, most of us don't appreciate, either personally or politically, that it is going to be almost impossible to feed future generations the kind of diet we have now in Western Europe and North America.

According to a report by Compassion in World Farming:

"Crops that could be used to feed the hungry are instead being used to fatten animals raised for food. It takes up to 22 pounds of grain to produce just 1 pound of edible animal flesh." 22 

The situation is not good: Over 70% of the grain produced in the US and 40% produced worldwide is fed to animals destined for slaughter, while an estimated 20 million of people worldwide die every year from hunger and its effects. 23 Note that grain-fattened animals take more energy and protein from their feed than they return in the form of food for humans. 19

Data on the amount of grain needed to produce of one pound of meat is given by various people, and is generally lower than the 22 pounds of grain mentioned above. In the classic book Diet for a Small Planet 24, Frances Moore Lappé refers to the calculation by the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) Economic Research Service, that it takes 16 pounds of grain to produce a pound of beef, if you were to feed the cattle a purely vegetarian diet. Almost the same figure is quoted by John Robbins, the rapper and prominent supporter of People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA)  25 He estimates 17 pounds per pound. A much lower figure of 10 pounds feed per 1 pound of beef is contained in the assessment by US Council of Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST). In all the above cases, once the inedible part of the dead animal is taken into account, the ratio of grain to meat becomes considerably higher.

The rise in 'grain yield per hectare' is slowing in all major grain-producing regions. This is due to the lack of new land and slower growth in irrigation and fertilizer use. The growth in the irrigated area has fallen behind that of population. It is a tragedy that, as they become richer, many countries are adopting the Western meat-rich diet. For example, in 1960 Mexico fed only 5% of its grain harvest to animals. This figure has climbed to 45% by 2004. Most worrying of all is that China, with one sixth of the world's population, has gone from feeding 8% of its grain to animals to 26% in forty years. In all such countries poor people could use grain to stave off malnutrition and improve their health. Unfortunately, they cannot afford to buy the grain. 10

For further comments see the paragraph Survival Diet.

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Notes on water:

One kilogram of grain-fed beef needs at least 15 cubic metres of water, while a kilo of cereals needs only up to three cubic metres. 26 Not only animals fed on grain but also such as rely on grazing, need far more water than grain crops. Much of the world is now running out of water for more production. According to Anders Berntell from the Stockholm International Water Institute:

"With about 840 million people under-nourished or lacking a secure food supply today, and another two billion or more people, ... by 2025, feeding the world's growing population - and finding the water to grow the food - continues to be a basic and sizeable challenge."

Recent projections by the International Food Policy Research Centre (IFPRI) indicate that if current trends in water management continue, we can expect a combined rise of 62% in consumption for domestic, industrial, and livestock use in the period 1995-2025. Figures for livestock production are predicted to rise by 71% in the same period - 19% in the developed world and more than double that in the developing nations. This in a world where (for a number of reasons) more than 1 billion people lack enough safe water to meet minimum levels of health and income. 27

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. McDonagh Sean, "Johannesburg 2002," at: http://eapi.admu.edu.ph/
  2. Loflin Lewis, "Unitarians and Deistic Christians," at: http://www.sullivan-county.com/
  3. McDonagh Sean, "The Death of Life: The Horror of Extinction," Columba Press, (2004). Overview at: http://www.christian-ecology.org.uk/
  4. Ecologist Staff, "A Blueprint for Survival," Penguin, (1973).
  5. Byrns Donna, "Religion and Environment," at: http://churchoftruth.org/
  6. Sheldon Joseph K., "Endangered Species," Testimony Before the House Committee on Resources (UK), 2004-APR-28.
  7. BBC News, "Extinction Alert for 888 Species," 2005-DEC-12.
  8. Goldsmith Edward, "The Way," Themis Books, (1996).
  9. Wilson Edward O., "The Diversity of Life," Penguin, (2001).
  10. McDonagh Sean, "SOURCE," 2004-SEP-15, at: http://www.wervel.be/
  11. Kirby Alex, "Climate Change: Uncharted Waters?," BBC News, 2004-DEC-03.
  12. McDonagh Sean, "The Death of Life. A Challenge to Christians," at:
  13. Ehrlich Paul R. & Anne H. Ehrlich, "Extinction," Gollanz, (1982).
  14. "Mass Extinction Underway," at: http://www.well.com/
  15. Kirby Alex, "Biodiversity. The Sixth Great Wave," BBC News, 2004-NOV-01.
  16. Pickrell John, "Wonder Drug: Snails Face Treats, Experts Warn," National Geographic News, 2003-OCT-16.
  17. "Codes of Cruelty, at: http://www.animalaustralia.org/
  18. Kirby Alex, "Can the Planet Feed Us?" BBC News, 2004-NOV-24.
  19. Elsis Mark, "Zero Population Growth will Occur Somewhere Between 2020 To 2029," at: http://www.overpopulation.net
  20. Factsheet, "Overfishing," at: http://www.vptene.org.uk/
  21. McDonagh Sean, "To Care for the Earth," Geoffrey Chapman, (1989).
  22. "Meat Means misery for the World Hungry," at: http://www.goveg.com/
  23. "Judaism and Ecology," at: http://hollys7.tripod.com/
  24. Lappé Frances Moore, "Diet for a Small Planet," Ballantine, (1982).
  25. Robbins John, "The Food Revolution," Conari Press, (2001).
  26. Kirby Alex, "Water Scarcity. A Looming Crisis?" BBC News, 2004-OCT-19.
  27. Gold Mark, "The Global Benefits of Eating Less Meat," Compassion in World Farming Trust, (2004) at: http://www.ciwf.org

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Copyright © 2006 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally posted: 2006-JUL-02
Latest update: 2006-JUL-17
Author: Vladimir Tomek

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