Bioextinction Workshop: Report One

I’m in Rome this morning as planned, but – not as planned – will not be in the room for the workshop on “Bioextinction: How to Save the Natural Environment on Which We Depend.” The sponsor, the Pontifical Academy for the Social Sciences (PASS), decided late last week that the event would not be open to the public or the press, leaving several of us who have come from far distant places in the lurch. PASS President Bishop Sánchez Sorondo was kind enough to write me back Friday immediately (just before I boarded my flight), that the workshop was only for the academicians (members) and their invitees, though earlier there were instructions on the PASS website for how to apply. At this point, we can only speculate about the reasons for the change, but it would not be surprising if nervousness about controversial speakers like discredited population controller Paul Ehrlich had something to do with it.

But we have many friends in Rome, and will be bringing you news over the next few days all the same. So check back by clicking the banner above.    

When religious people talk about the environment, they typically have little knowledge of the science and, therefore, speak the language of morals. When scientists talk about environment, they aren’t exactly without moral concerns, but their morality is basically utilitarianism. Which is to say they tend to regard questions of deep human – and more than human – concern as plain matters of engineering, including social engineering.

In the present context, the default setting is: Too many people are consuming (what the scientists think of as) “unrenewable” resources. So reduce population and encourage fewer children, by whatever means necessary, and redirect use of resources. A prominent American environmentalist wrote a book a few years ago: Maybe One: A Case for Smaller Families which title says it all.

That attitude has crept into all of Western culture now, even among people who aren’t particularly exercised about the environment. Europe is suffering demographic collapse, as a result, as is Russia. And even America feels pressure to admit illegal immigrants to do jobs there aren’t enough Americans to do. U.N. agencies push condoms and pills and – when they can get away with it – abortion in poorer countries. The wisdom of all this is highly suspect, to say the least. But outside the Catholic Church, it’s considered only humane to take steps to ensure there are fewer of us being born and living on planet Earth.

And maybe now inside the Church as well. In this regard, it’s instructive to look at how PASS has characterized what will be going on in the workshop, starting this morning, over the next days. Here it is. The brief history of life on planet Earth provided by PASS is a garbled gallop through billions of years of the cosmological and geological evidence, which probably is a bit of an embarrassment for the scientists participating. But there’s one constant: the steady emphasis on the destruction of the Earth, allegedly caused by the growth in human numbers.

Rather than seeing our ability to improvise and survive (even though there are 7 billion of us now) as evidence of human success, ingenuity, and creativity, that growth is presented as an ominous development. And it concludes with this bit of nonsense: “Global Footprint Network ( carefully measures our consumption of all aspects of the world’s sustainable productivity, and has calculated that in about 1970 we were using about 70% of the Earth’s sustainable capacity, and now that we are using about 156%.”

Hold on. How you can use 156 percent of anything? That’s already a logical puzzle. It’s just clear thinking to say, rather: some scientists think we are using more than 1½ times what we ought to sustain certain resources. But even if there were clear thinking on that point, “sustainable,” as anyone who has not blindly accepted the worst-case scenarios about the environment knows, is a virtually meaningless concept.

Casina Pio IV, site of the Workshop from which journalists are barred

It may mean anything – or nothing. If you had asked someone in 1900 if there could possibly ever be enough hay to feed all the horses that would be needed to plough all the fields necessary to feed all 7 billion people alive today, it would have seemed utterly “unsustainable.” But we’ve moved beyond horses and hay. And if we don’t blow it, might – I don’t know – have a few other good ideas before we go extinct.

We don’t know who put together this muddle of a program, but it wasn’t the sharpest minds, even among population alarmists. And notice that despite this being a “Workshop on Bioextinction,” there isn’t very much very urgent about that except as a function of human population growth. Scientists already estimate that all but 1 percent of all species that have ever appeared on Earth have already gone extinct, all but a tiny fraction without any human input at all.

It’s no surprise then that the workshop will open this morning with a setting of “Goals and Objectives” by Sir Partha Dasgupta, co-author of several articles with Paul Ehrlich. The two will be back, together, in an afternoon session to talk about “Why We Are in the Sixth Extinction and What It Means to Humanity.” That will probably not be good news for “humanity” in the womb already, or who might be someday. On the positive side, though, Paul “the Population Bomb” Ehrlich is beyond question a false prophet.

There are, of course, legitimate questions about the human impact on the environment. And no one should ignore them, least of all Christians who recognizes that, even in the Garden of Eden, the Creator gave us the responsibility to work and tend it. PASS devotes one sentence to the command in Genesis to care for the Garden, and it ignores “be fruitful and multiply.”

One result of that divine command, a result that might be deduced from numbers the workshop invokes but fails to see the positive side of, is that over 6 billion people live reasonably well on Earth today. The hundreds of millions who do not, can and should be brought into what St. JPII called the “circle of production and exchange.”

This doesn’t mean we can easily solve every problem or even know what a solution might be. Only those who think we can control life believe that. But it does mean that we may have a good deal more hope about how to do so than do those who only see salvation in the reduction of our numbers.

It’s curious that in this setting up of the question there is no mention of God. The only thing that comes close is when Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson is quoted about our environmental “sin.” But except for that, it seems we can all be ecological Pelagians. All we need is to listen to the forward thinking scientists and simply do whatever they say.

God and Jesus are absent, but there is a religion here. A religion of international scientific management of our race, gilded with language about social justice. We saw a lot of that in the 20th Century. It produced mounds ­of corpses. We’d do well to keep a close eye on these latest proponents of that attitude.

We’ll be trying to do that here in coming days.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.