Summer Special: Why care about conservation?

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Sami M’Rad, Pixabay

All of us are motivated by something. It might be a desire to succeed, please others, follow a particular ethical framework, or perhaps live in the light of faith. Our motivations underpin what we choose to do with our lives; the causes we care about, the career path we pursue and the relationships we nurture. Such is the case for Dr Darren Evans from Newcastle University, who gave an inspiring talk on Christian motivations for biodiversity conservation at the Faraday Summer School in July 2019. Growing up on a housing estate, Darren was inspired to love nature by watching sparrows nest above his bedroom window and by feeding pigeons! Coupled with becoming a Christian at university, this led him to pursue a career as a conservation biologist.

Conservation is not only an essential component of 21stcentury biology, but it is also a deeply philosophical one. As a biology undergraduate I sat in many lectures on the theme “why we do conservation”. Darren asks his students the very same question when they begin their studies at university. Movingly, their interest in the discipline is usually underpinned by a love of the natural world that is often impossible for the students to verbally articulate. I strongly empathise with this feeling, but as Darren pointed out it is not how wider society tends to view conservation.

There has been an increasing focus in conservation over the past twenty years on “ecosystem services”: a framework concerning the benefits human beings derive from nature.The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, launched in 2001, rightly responded to a concern that humanity was taking nature for granted, emphasised by mapping ecosystem services onto constituents of human well-being. There is certainly great value in this, for example the mental health benefits of connecting with nature are now widely acknowledged. However, fast forward to 2019 and the picture for biodiversity has not drastically improved.

A recent report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) highlighted that an estimated 1 million species are threatened with extinction as a result of anthropogenic activity and that biodiversity loss is as great a threat to humanity as climate change. IPBES also framed their report based on the value of natural capital; the economic value of an ecosystem service. Is this the only way we can engage wider society in halting catastrophic biodiversity loss, by framing everything in economic terms? Darren argues not, and urged caution through the words of George Monbiot in 2012:

“Rarely will the money to be made by protecting nature match the money to be made by destroying it. Nature offers low rates of return by comparison to other investments. If we allow the discussion to shift from values to value – from love to greed – we cede the natural world to the forces wrecking it.”

The discussion here goes beyond motivation. Fundamentally, what affects our behaviour is our beliefs. This means that belief matters in biodiversity conservation. Beliefs affect our actions and the environment and land in which we live. We might feel comfortable having an oil rig blotting the landscape if it is our belief that we have a right to drive cars and use mobile phones.

In the UK it can be challenging for a conservation scientist to stand up in front of colleagues and explain how one’s beliefs motivate a drive to protect biodiversity, depending on what value framework you use. However, in other parts of the world, talking about beliefs is not off-limits. Darren passionately argued that to be a conservation scientist you’ve got to understand the local socio-political, religious and cultural landscape. Sadly this is not always a priority of western conservationists. However, there are a range of organisations around the world where people of religious persuasion are trying to make positive change. This shouldn’t come as a surprise because they know their belief matters, and are squaring the crisis with their own value system. Simply focusing on economics, which has been the pervading approach in the UK, does not match up with the values of why people have gone into conservation.

For Darren, and for myself, a belief in Christianity motivates a desire to care for the natural world. The underpinning ethic of twenty-first century conservation, that is, the intrinsic value of a species, has its basis in Judeo-Christian tradition. Chapter two of Genesis calls human beings to care and protect their fellow creatures, and it is revealed later on that God’s redemptive plan for creation includes the non-human species with which we share our world (e.g. in Isaiah 11, Hosea 2, Romans 8, and Colossians 1). Darren and his family try to live not only in this call to stewardship, but also prophetically, using conservation to point towards the kingdom of God that is to come. This is the ultimate motivator for practising conservation.

Christianity can provide a perspective that the conservation movement desperately needs; a perspective of hope and love. In the words of Simon Stuart, practising Christian and former Chair of the Species Survival Commission at the International Union for Conservation of Nature: “Every time we celebrate a conservation success story…we are strengthened in this present hope that God is working with us to redeem his creation.”What a glorious and encouraging truth.

 

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© A Patterson

Abigail Patterson is the current Development Officer for Christians in Science, and is soon to start teacher training. She studied Biological Sciences at St Hilda’s College, University of Oxford and subsequently conducted graduate research in palaeoecology and plant evolutionary ecology. She has taught Biology at both school and undergraduate level and worked with several conservation charities, including the Earth Trust and the Scottish Wildlife Trust. Abigail came to know Jesus through the witness of a Christian physicist friend and is passionate about reading her Bible faithfully whilst accepting current findings of modern science. In her spare time, Abigail loves spending time outdoors; running, cycling and exploring ancient woodlands looking at plants. She is based in Oxford with her husband Matthew, where they both attend St Ebbe’s Church.

 

 

Ascension Day Guest Post. Restoring Creation: a Christian perspective on rewilding

© Alias 0591, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Galloping wild horses, cranes soaring overhead, beavers splashing in rivers and the howl of wolves echoing through the forest: this is a vision that has led to an explosion of interest in the topic of rewilding. George Monbiot arguably brought rewilding into the public sphere through his 2013 book Feral, capitalising on an unspoken yearning in our society to reconnect with nature. An impressionable biology undergraduate at the time, I recall feeling a thrill (yes, I’m a nerd!) as Monbiot set out a radical new vision for conservation. Fast forward to 2019, and rewilding is an integral component of ever-increasing concerns surrounding environmental sustainability; a recent petition calling for the restoration of British nature has, to date, attracted nearly 100,000 signatures.

So, what is rewilding, and how can I respond as a Christian? Is there a richer theological message from rewilding than simply environmental stewardship; a reconciliation between human beings and God’s creation that points us towards the ultimate restoration to come? Continue reading

Sustainability Pledge: Why the environment is my problem

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© Felix’s Endless Journey, Flickr, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/

When Dellarobia Turnbow, an Appalachian farm worker, encountered millions of butterflies in the woods behind her house, she first thought the trees were on fire but not burning up—and that this was a sign for her to stop making a bad decision. She had been wrestling with an unhappy marriage, life on an unproductive farm, and bringing up two kids on an almost non-existent income. Her overwrought mind couldn’t quite take in what was in front of her eyes. When she persuaded her busy family to take a walk up the mountain, the reality of what they were all seeing eventually sank in. Continue reading

Guest Post: A Human Particular

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© Fiona Rich

The mist wisped its way over the sea towards the shore, curling over the beach and on to the promenade.  A deepening haze softened the contours of the beach huts and the cliffs behind.  I walked more slowly, feeling my way ahead.  The air was unusually still.  Scanning the beach I glimpsed a shape there.  It seemed to be blue and white; an abandoned deckchair perhaps?  Coming closer I could see it was a figure stretched out in the sand. Probably one of those giant puppets from yesterday’s carnival.  Then I heard a faint moan.  I approached cautiously.  As I drew closer I could see wide canvas trousers and a short jacket with brass buttons. A scene from my childhood floated past me.  It was a wet day and I was asking when it would be dry enough to play outside.  ‘Is there enough blue sky to make a pair of sailor’s trousers?’ my mother asked, looking up at the sky.  So perhaps this figure was a sailor?  He seemed rather small.  There was seaweed hanging from his body.  Had he nearly drowned and been washed ashore?  I hesitated, being somewhat squeamish and also aware that I was on my way to a rehearsal. Continue reading

Summer Special: Why conserve wild nature?

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When we are faced with issues of climate change, habitat loss, global population increase and the resulting demands for resources and waste management, the question is not just how to respond, but why? In her lecture at the Faraday summer course, Biblical Dr Hilary Marlow described three ways people answer the question “Why care for the Earth?” Continue reading

The Myth of the Holy Hierarchy

Remembering UK scientist R. J. “Sam” Berry (1934–2018), a real scientist with real faith

“As a Christian at university, I was faced with a hierarchy of possibilities. The really holy people became missionaries, the rather holy people were ordained, and the fairly holy people became teachers; the ‘also rans’ did all the other jobs in the world,” so wrote R. J. Berry in his book Real Science, Real Faith. Having discovered that he either couldn’t or shouldn’t do any of the “holy” jobs, Berry, known to most as Sam, eventually realized “that we have all been given different talents and callings, and that there is not (and should not be) such a thing as a typical or normal Christian.”

Sam Berry was anything but a normal Christian. He attended his local church regularly, went to the monthly prayer meetings whenever he could, and served on the church council. For the last 30 years of his life he was licensed to preach, and for about 20 years he took part in national synod meetings. This would have been a huge commitment on top of a regular job and raising three children, but Sam was a high-capacity person who was not content to conform to the stereotype of “also-ran”—those who run races but never win. He demonstrated to the best of his ability that every single Christian is in full-time ministry.

Continue reading this article now (free, no signup required) in Christianity Today.

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© Faraday Institute

Ruth Bancewicz is a Senior Research Associate at The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, where she works on the positive interaction between science and faith. After studying Genetics at Aberdeen University, she completed a PhD at Edinburgh University. She spent two years as a part-time postdoctoral researcher at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Cell Biology at Edinburgh University, while also working as the Development Officer for Christians in Science. Ruth arrived at The Faraday Institute in 2006, and is currently a trustee of Christians in Science.

 

Creation Groans, but God Hears

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Panther by Marco Luttenberg, freeimages.com

Visitors to London Zoo last autumn stood enthralled, watching the family dynamics of the critically endangered Sumatran tiger playing out before them. The two newborn cubs, instinctively mischievous, repeatedly pounced and climbed up their 280-pound father, claws unsheathed. Crowds admired this tiger, built for predatory power, turning his obvious annoyance into gentle reprimands. The scene is reminiscent of Aslan the lion, whom C. S. Lewis used to capture some of the attributes of God—tender but also powerful and “not a tame lion.”

Today, these majestic cats are the focus of World Wildlife Day, along with the other big cats that are under threat on our watch—no, because of our watch. Habitat loss, conflict with people, and poaching are just some of the reasons for their drastic declines. There has been a 95 percent drop in tiger numbers over the last hundred years and a 40 percent drop in African lions over just 20 years.

Continue reading this article now (free, no signup required) in Christianity Today.