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Species Extinctions

Do you ask yourself

"What Can I do in my life about species extinctions?"

Judith Allinson, botanist and CEL's web editor

  • Reviews a book by Columban priest Sean McDonagh about species extinctions,
  • Presents some useful quotes and statistics from the book. (to save you reading the book..)
  • Gives a useful four-side handout as a pdf file (reducable to 4 sides A5) based on the page.
  • Highlights the difficulty of measuring extinction rates including references to Bjon Lomborg, E.O.Wilson and Clive Hambler.


The Death of Life - The Horror of Extinction

by Sean McDonagh Columba Press £6.99 162pp

  • is easy to read,
  • has useful statistics and personal examples from the author
  • challenges the church to be more concerned about species extinctions.

Worldwide, one quarter of large animals and one eighth of birds are in danger of extinction - due to humankind's activities.

I first read about Sean McDonagh back in 1987 in a colour supplement article where he was promoting the idea of a "Creation Festival" service in the Christian Church. He had just written his first book "To Care for the Earth " linking two themes: firstly how humankind is causing grave environmental problems, and secondly what the church and Christian teaching has said or ought to be saying about this. Indeed, when WWF organised a walking pigrimage to Winchester Cathedral later in 1987 for an environment service, I thought "This is it! This is the Creation Festival. Hmm... and that was 20 24 years ago!

Several books on, still in the same format with the same vital idea that "Protecting life ought surely to be the vocation of every Christian today", this book has a very strong title, concentrating on species extinctions: The Death of Life - the Horror of Extinction. Perhaps the strong title is because he is dismayed at the slow speed of response of the church. Perhaps it is because in our generation the current rate of species extinction is 1000 (to 10,000) times the natural rate of extinction. Either way, do read the book. It is easy to read and has lots of well-researched, useful references.

McDonagh is a Columban Priest who worked with the T'boli people in the Philippines in the 1970s, and he is able to give good first hand examples. The Philippines is now designated as one of the world's 34 biodiversity hotspots ( He has seen the forest of the T'boli people being destroyed by logging, and with it, their culture and identity. He has seen floods and death caused by deforestation upstream. He points out he is part of the last generation to see species such as the Philippine Eagle in the wild.

The first part of the book is packed with useful statistics, for the Philippines, for Ireland and Britain, and for the world.

In the second half, he considers the attitude towards nature of individual Christians and the church throughout history. He is quite critical of the churches' response. It gives bible quotations and Christian teaching. I learned (amongst many other things) that examples of past positive influences include: Pelagius, Benedict and Francis, and negative: Luther and Augustine and very negative: Jansen.

I am a bit wary about the statistics that McDonagh quotes for rates of extinction. He uses the satandard rates that have been given by famous people such as E.O. Wilson, but Lomborg (in the Skeptical Environmentalist in 2003) challenges these as over-estimates. I discuss this below. However, even if Lomborg's more conservative estimate of 0.7% species becoming extinct in 50 years iscorrect, it still indicates that in my lifetime 1% of the world's species - God's gifts to us and future generations - will have become extinct.

It is up to us to act now.

There are several occasions in the Church Calendar when we can pay special attention to these issues.

  1. Environment Sunday is the first Sunday in June (The nearest Sunday to World Environment Day on 5 June);
  2. The second Sunday before Lent is considered as Creation Sunday by the Old Lectionary
  3. CreationTide is the period between 1st September and the second Sunday in October. Perhaps we could use extracts from his book in our services that day.

Perhaps we can lobby our candidates in the run up to the elections and ask what they are doing - on our behalf - to save endangered species and endangered habitats.- . The churches are becoming more aware of the environment - but it is books like this that are leading the way.


Quotes from McDonagh's book
Page number

"Species are now perishing at 1000 or even 10,000 times the 'background' extinction over the past 600 million years. " (from Sir Robert May)


"Given the caveat about our knowledge of the number of species on the planet, it is now estimated that 24% of large animals and 12 % of bird species are now in danger of extinction" (IUCN - World Conservation Union)


"As the extinction of one species has a knock-on effect on at last 16 other species, this projected level of extinction is an extraordinary blow to the global web of life.".


"Experts estimate that nature supplies humans with services worth 26 trillion € each year. This is seen as 'free' by those who calibrate economic growth, so few people pay any attention to it. " from Margaret Wallstrom, the EU Environment Commissioner (J.A. 26 trillion € is about the same as the world economy - from Lomborg page 251)


He laments that "Whilst spending 7 years studying for the priesthood, surrounded by a variety of native and exotic trees" at his seminary in Ireland he was taught little about nature or the trees that grew there. "We were not even encouraged to show the basic courtesy that one creature ought to show another by learning its proper name."


Philippines 1900: 70% of the land had forest cover. Philippines 1999: 18.3% of the land had forest cover, only 2.7% is primary forest.

"Though the profits from logging were astronomical they benefited only a few elitist families."


"Even during my first decade as a missionary in the Philippines I was still blind to what was happening to creation. I remember a particular typhoon .the swollen river engulfed the homes of poor people close to the river bank. Many people, especially the very young and the elderly, were drowned.. There was huge concern in the parish for the survivors and money, clothes and household goods were collected .. to help them. Many people knew that the logging on Mount Malindang during the previous three decades was responsible for the flash flood, but no one, in public life or within the Catholic Church was demanding the ending of logging and the replanting of the mountain."


"Creation-centred doctrines are at the core of the Catholic Faith: These include

  1. a belief in God's action in creation,
  2. the doctrine of the incarnation which proclaims that God became part of creation, and
  3. our belief that we encounter God in a special way in the sacraments which involve created realities like bread, wine, water and oil."


"5000 languages or distinctive dialects became extinct during in the 20 th century...At the beginning of the third millennium it is estimated there are about 6784 different languages spoken around the globe. half of these will become extinct in the next 100 years."


In Ireland "we have lost the crane, the bittern, the red kite, and a number of species of eagles, the marsh harrier, the osprey and the goshawk."


"More than half the peat sold in garden centres in Britain comes from Irish bogs. It is ironic that a hobby like gardening which one would associate with something positive can be doing so much damage."


"Whilst it is wonderful to be able to point to a number of Catholic theologians and mystics whose deep appreciation of creation touched and shaped their Christian lives, unfortunately they constitute a small minority in a tradition which either disregarded creation or denigrated it."


"The first papal document devoted exclusively to environment and development issues, entitled Peace with God the Creator, Peace with all creation was published on 1 January 1990 . In it Pope John Paul II.. declares that "Christians in particular realise that their duty towards nature and Creator are an essential part of their faith (No 15, emphasis mine). This teaching is arguably the best kept secret in the Catholic Church."

"It is a pity that the two most recent encyclicals Evangelium Vitae and Faith and Reason are so engrossed in human problems and moral challenges that they barely mention the current ecological crisis."


"The natural world is God's creation. Protecting life ought surely to be the vocation of every Christian today."

"The challenge facing this generation is quite different. This is the mass extinction of other creatures in just a few short decades."


Churches should spearhead an awareness programme.



Lomborg's comments on species rate statistics.

Those who have read Bjorn Lomborg's book, the Skeptical Environmentalist, will be aware that Lomborg ridicules many environmentalists for giving or quoting or requoting extreme statistics that illustrate their point but which do not have a sound basis or give all the assumptions.

McDonagh for the most part has taken care to quote standard, reputable and conservative statistics, and has done a good job of simplifying things. (Scientific papers are often full of caveats).

However it is difficult because we JUST DO NOT KNOW how many species there are in the world. We can only make estimates.

There are 1.7 million named species - but perhaps between 5 million or even 150 million not yet discovered and named. (These include bacteria and insects and deep sea creatures as well as larger plants and mammals)

Clive Hambler (Conservation-Studies in Biology Series Camb Univ Press 2004, page 19) gives a very rough estimate of 1-20 species becoming extinct each day. McDonagh quotes 74 per day - taking the lower value from Harvard biologist E.O.Wilson's estimate of 74-280 per day. (See what a big difference in "official" figures)

Bjorn Lomborg quotes several sources as suggesting a rate of 0.7% (actually 0.1 to 1%) of all species becoming extinct in 50 years. In contrast, McDonagh states" Unless we change and protect life and particular habitats one third to one half of species of the world will be lost in a mere 45 years". Sometimes it is necessary to quote the larger estimates to get people's attention.

Even if Lomborg's more conservative estimate is correct, It gives me anguish - to think that in my lifetime 1% of the world's species - God's gifts to us and future generations - will have become extinct.

It is up to us to act now.

As an exercise, print out the table given below print table and fill it in with answers from you life.

Question                        Fill in your answer below
What evidence have I seen in my life of species extintions and loss? (whether first hand or on TV)




What can I do about it?



What things have I done about it?



One day soon I will put some answers up from my life... but your life is just as important.


January 2008-December 2011 and ongoing: At my church this January we have set up the St John's Methodist Church Rainforest Fund Project and invite you to donate to this!!!! see the blog:

Download this page as a pdf fourside leaflet

Judith Allinson is a botanist who runs Plant Identification Holiday and Professional Courses for the Field Studies Council and is web editor for Christian Ecology Link and attends St John's Methodist Church, Settle. and also carries out some Supply School Teaching. The basis of this review first appeared in the Methodist Recorder.

Another review of this book can be seen by clicking here

Useful references on extinctions:

Notes on the Philippine eagle:



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