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Late Professor Charles Birch, a man of science and faith

Regaining Compassion for Humanity and Nature - by Professor Charles Birch

Regaining Compassion for Humanity and Nature by L. Charles Birch
(extracts from the above)

Charles Birch's teaching career included Oxford, Columbia and the Universities of Chicago and Minnesota, as well as visiting professor of genetics at the University of California at Berkeley and professor of biology at the University of Sydney. Professor Birch has blazed new paths into the relationships between science and faith.

He saw 2 billion people on the planet and 6 billion, and counting, at the end of the century, where resources obviously were finite. The global ecology was being rapidly depleted and the harmony that Christianity preached appeared further from reach than ever.

Birch met many of the world's great thinkers in population and genetics, including Paul Ehrlich. For years he was prominent in the Zero Population Growth movement, which attracted widespread support in Australia.

The Fate of the Earth

Unless we change we'll get where we’re going. Anon.
Our generation has a litany of crimes against the world to its record. Topsoil disappears at the rate of one football field each second.

Arable land is covered with concrete at the rate of three football fields each minute. Forests disappear at the rate of four football fields each minute.

Species disappear at the rate of one hundred a day. Add to this the greenhouse effect and the hole in the ozone layer and it becomes obvious that our present treatment of the Earth cannot continue for ever.

The world is dying. We are on an unsustainable course.

The collapse of civilizations

The decline of the Mayan civilization in the lowlands of Guatemala was almost certainly due to severe soil erosion and deforestation. For seventeen centuries the population doubled every 400 years, reaching a density by AD 900 comparable with that of agriculturally intensive societies of today. At this peak the civilization suddenly collapsed. Within decades the population fell to less than one-tenth of what it had been. They didn’t know how to look after the Earth

The collapse of the civilization that occupied the Euphrates River basin of the Great Fertile Crescent was also probably a consequence of humanly induced environmental deterioration. The difference between us and the Mayans is that we know we are on an unsustainable path. We may not have seen the collapse of whole civilizations in our day in this way, but we have seen the disappearance of large areas of formerly habitable earth.

The United Nations Environmental Program warns that one-third of the entire land surface of the world is now in danger. In the world as a whole, topsoil disappears each year in an amount equivalent to the total topsoil of the entire vast wheat belt of Australia which covers 113,000 square kilometers.

World population

The world’s population in 1992 was estimated to be 5.4 billion. It is likely to reach 6.3 billion by the end of this century, nearly the equivalent of adding another China. More than 90 per cent of the increase is in poor countries. That poses an immense problem for the rich and poor world alike.

So-called development of vast inland spaces is limited by shortage of water. That is the main limiting resource of Australia. It is the reason why most Australians live on the coastal fringe.

Soil Deterioration

The deterioration of soil on agricultural lands is worldwide. The world as a whole loses 113, 000 square kilometers of topsoil each year which is equivalent to the topsoil of the entire wheat belt of Australia being lost each year.

Likewise, much of existing agriculture in Australia is unsustainable. The Center for Farm Planning and Land Management in the University of Melbourne estimates that 60 per cent of Australian agricultural land requires treatment for land degradation, salinity, erosion and tree decline. For every hectare of land used for cropping, between 50 and 300 tons of topsoil is lost each year. The cost is at least $600 million each year. Former Prime Minister Bob Hawke said that ‘none of Australia’s environmental problems is more serious than the soil degradation . . . over nearly two-thirds of our continent’s arable land’ (Brown 1990, p. 60).

Soil erosion in Australia has been called the quiet crisis because it creeps upon a farmer often unnoticed. It has increased in recent years because of the pressure for the farmer to produce more from each hectare. Another problem is that short-term costs of combating soil deterioration often exceed the short-term benefit in some places by three times. Rangelands provided about a quarter of Australia’s grazing country for sheep. Overstocking and subsequent invasion by inedible shrubs, such as hopbush, and inedible annual grasses has resulted in nearly 3 million hectares being completely ‘shrubbed out’.

Deserts are expanding as a result of inappropriate human activity in Africa, south-central Asia, Australia, the western United States and southern South America. In China between 1949, when the Communist government came into power; and the year 2000 it is estimated that the total area of desert will have doubled (Ehrlich & Ehrlich 1990, p. 129).

Student Christian Movement

He found the Student Christian Movement, a very liberal organisation. It didn't emphasise future things that are going to happen to you in terms of heaven and hell, rewards and punishment. It emphasised a way of life which was basically modelled on the life of Jesus and so you had to study the life of Jesus. God didn't manipulate the world or God didn't send flowers, God didn't send fire and angels and chariots and all this sort of stuff.

So it was what we now call a very liberal interpretation of the Christian religion. And God was not the manipulator of the world. And if you wanted to use a word, it would be God's influence was persuasive. And that stayed with me. And I found it very persuasive.

Interview with Birch

Lester R. Brown (1990, p. 190)
The Worldwatch Institute in Washington was established in the 1970s to alert the world to increasing threats to human well-being and to the environment. Its director Lester Brown, caught on to the concept of the ecologically sustainable society and wrote Building a Sustainable Society (1981) in which he diagnosed the present state of global unsustainability and suggested paths to sustainability

Ehrlich, Paul, and Anne Ehrlich. 1990. Overpopulation
The Earth's population is increasing rapidly. Some say that the Earth will not be able to support it's inhabitants in the future because of overpopulation. However, the truth in this lies in it's definition. The Ehrlichs discuss the different connotations of the term "overpopulation." Often it is thought of in relation to crowding and density (i.e. too many people in a certain area would constitute a high population density).

Charles Birch obituary in the media-He died last year

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Comments

Charles Birch was an amazing and enlightened thinker of his time. He forcasted the disasters of climate change, carbon emissions, overpopulation and soil degradation.

He also recognised the intrinsic value of animals.

He said: "you’ve got to look at animals as having not only an instrumental value in the world – a usefulness to human beings or to other animals – but also an intrinsic value in themselves. What on earth would give intrinsic value, a value quite independent of any usefulness to other creatures? The answer I have come to is that only feeling gives intrinsic value. In other words, you recognise some degree of feeling or of mentality, if you like, which is very high in human beings and reaches a level of consciousness, but fades off as you go down the evolutionary scheme of things. And yet I would say it is still there".

There are some things that evolution and survival of the fittest that just can't be explained, like intrinsic values, empathy and bonding.