By Nathan Brasfield

The phrase “climate change” is used so often to refer to our ecological crisis that it sometimes even functions as a misnomer. Our warming atmosphere and oceans and our altered climate as a result are only one reason why life on Earth as we know it is in jeopardy. To see a second reason, we need look no further than a local Starbucks. The franchise stopped providing straws not so much because of “climate change” but because of the plastic pollution catastrophe that is only worsening each day.

For many people in our society (a good number of whom are in our churches), “climate change,” or, especially, “human-caused climate change” is an ideology—even a political belief—they don’t believe in. Because we cannot observe human-caused climate change before our eyes, denying it is easy. The crisis is an inference from evidence (and from very clear evidence), not a direct observation of reality. However, our pollution disaster is different. Any of us can observe that it is real and that its source is us.

Biodiversity loss is similar to pollution in this way, yet it is the largest ecological problem and you’ve probably heard the least about it. Biodiversity loss is the extinction of a high number of species that formerly supported the life of all other lifeforms in the same ecosystem. It is the collapse of the diversity of species that keeps us alive in the web of life that binds us together. As with pollution, there is no room at all for denying that it is happening due to human action because we are watching ourselves inflict it upon the earth in real time. Scientists have calculated that species are going extinct at a rate 1000x higher than they would have naturally—that is, apart from the actions of human beings. 

If this figure seems so daunting as to be improbable, we would do well to remember that according to total numbers of wild animals alone, humans have already done away with 70% of the ones that live on land and 80% of the ones that live in the water. As far as species themselves go, half to two-thirds of the plants and animals we have known are expected to be gone by the end of the century based on the way things are currently going. It is estimated that 2.7 species in the best-case scenario and 270 species in the worst-case scenario will continue to be lost every day.[1]

We are experiencing such a high rate of species extinction, in fact, that the scientific consensus is that we are embarking upon the earth’s sixth mass extinction event following upon the five previous ones, which are evident in the geologic record. However, unlike the previous five, this time we are the cause and this time our own species is threatened. We are jeopardizing our existence and the existence of all creatures by the ways that we pollute the air, water, and soil, and by our insistence on using up more and more land and taking up more and more space. As Bill McKibben put it, we are clearly demonstrating that it is within our ability “to run Genesis backward”. [2]

 

Recognizing that biodiversity loss is driven primarily by the collective decisions of those of us in industrialized nations and by practically every other facet of the ecological crisis, we may despair that there is not much that we as individuals can do about it right now. However, while we can and should vote for politicians who will address this most immense crisis and we should be careful about our energy consumption and we should take up less space to avoid habitat loss, there are two actions that many—perhaps most—of us can do starting today that would collectively have the greatest impact on alleviating our destruction of the earth’s species. Both of them have to do with how we eat.

This graph shows relative percentages of land use in the US.
  • That big yellow square dominates the landscape. That is the relative amount of land given over to raising cattle.
  • Agribusiness then puts cattle into feedlots, which means they’ve cleared more land to plant grain to feed the cattle. The large tan square, outlined in black, is the amount of land for raising grain for livestock to eat.
  • Contrast that with the highlighted green rectangle above it that gives the percentage of food grown for people.

The industrial animal-product system, which supplies our grocery stores with meat, eggs, and dairy products, is the most harmful human activity that the greatest number of us could give up if only we choose to. Far more mammals are being raised in horrific conditions in factory farms than exist in the wild, which is itself a major contributor to the diminishment of the earth’s biodiversity. Clearing wild habitats for raising cattle on pasture and for the grossly inefficient practice of growing corn and soybeans just to feed to these animals is the single largest contributor to biodiversity loss worldwide. Industrial monoculture farming methods used to grow crops for animal feed compound the effects with pollution and soil degradation—another major driver of biodiversity loss. The industrial animal-product system uses and abuses land disproportionately for animal feed—land that could provide wildlife habitat and that could be used for growing food that can be eaten directly by humans.

What can we do?

First, as much as possible, lessen the amount of animal products that you consume. If you still eat meat, dairy, and eggs on occasion, acquire them from ecologically responsible local farms.

Second, the thing many of us, though not all of us, can do for the sake of the earth’s biodiversity is to source our fruits and vegetables from local farms that focus on the health of the soil. The soil degradation caused by industrial farming methods is first and foremost a biodiversity issue, and the loss of healthy soil that will continue to grow food for us is one of our most urgent ecological crises. Healthy soil contains a multitude of small and microscopic species that are essential to sustainable farming. To find food grown in healthy soil, look for local farmers markets and community supported agriculture (CSA) subscriptions that sell produce from farms bearing the Certified Naturally Grown (CNG) certification. Otherwise, talk to your local farmers and ask them how they pay attention to the health of the soil.

We are watching Earth’s life forms—upon whose lives we depend—diminish because of the way we live. Our decisions about what we eat amount to the most profound way in which we relate to the earth, which we are biblically mandated to serve and protect (Genesis 2:15). When you eat—even at your very next meal—you can do your part to prevent Genesis from running backward and to protect the web of life of which we all are a part.

Nathan Brasfield is an EarthKeeper, a CreatureKind fellow, a member of the Tennessee-Western Kentucky Conference Creation Care Ministry Team, and a D.Min. candidate at Memphis Theological Seminary, focusing on Land, Food, and Faith Formation.

1. Crist, Eileen. Abundant Earth: Toward an Ecological Civilization. The University of Chicago Press, 2019, page 18.

2. McKibben, Bill. Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. St. Martin’s Griffin, 2011, page 25.