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.


© 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.



Guest Post – Psychology of Religion: Love the Lord your God with all your mind

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© ElisaRiva, pixabay

When asked which was the greatest of the commandments, Jesus said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” (Matthew 22.37). Mark’s and Luke’s accounts (Mark 12.30; Luke 10.27) also include “and with all your strength.” Part of loving God with our minds is, at least for me, learning more about our minds. This includes learning about how our minds conceive of God, how we can develop habits of mind that might bring us closer to God, and how worship shapes our attitudes and thinking. These are precisely the sorts of things that are studied by psychologists of religion. Continue reading

Guest Post: Do you know?

Image courtesy of NASA

‘Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand.
Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it?

On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone –
while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?

The earth takes shape like clay under a seal; its features stand out like those of a garment.

‘Have you journeyed to the springs of the seaor walked in the recesses of the deep?

Job 38:4-7,14,16 (NIV)

‘Do you know?’ God’s challenge to Job’s lack of humility before God stretches across time, space and all creation. The view of the universe that science gives enables us to answer some of the challenge. We weren’t there at the start of it all, yet our studies of the Earth and other planets, along with glimpses of the farthest universe and the hidden depths of the sea, enable us to perceive perhaps more of how God is at work in creation than Job. Continue reading

Book Preview: Creation, Providence, and Evolution

© RM Bancewicz

The Christian doctrine of creation has done much to shape the biological sciences that we study today…John Ray (1627– 1705), [was] a key Christian founder of the discipline of natural history that later came to be called biology…Ray taught some of the materials that later became his book [The Wisdom of God manifested in the Works of Creation] not in a lecture hall but in Trinity College chapel because he saw teaching science as an act of worship. John Ray declared that he had published his Ornithology for “the illustration of Gods glory, by exciting men to take notice of, and admire his infinite power and wisdom.”… Continue reading

Storm Scenarios: Keep Calm and Battle On

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© John Boyer, Freeimages

One day Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Let us go over to the other side of the lake.’ So they got into a boat and set out. As they sailed, he fell asleep. A squall came down on the lake, so that the boat was being swamped, and they were in great danger. The disciples went and woke him, saying, ‘Master, Master, we’re going to drown!’ He got up and rebuked the wind and the raging waters; the storm subsided, and all was calm. ‘Where is your faith?’ he asked his disciples. In fear and amazement they asked one another, ‘Who is this? He commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him.’

Luke 8:22-25

Perhaps the storm stopped suddenly of its own accord, but the disciples were not fooled. They had seen a number of these ‘coincidences’ in Jesus ministry, and they weren’t about to ignore this one. Jesus had calmed the waves with only his words. Wasn’t this an act of God? Who else could be in complete control of creation?

I’m not sure whether the disciples were more frightened before or after the storm, but it must have been a key moment in their relationship with Jesus. These twelve men had been travelling with him for some time now. They had been living and eating with him, learning, being sent out on mission, been told off for being stupid or competitive, and supported through all their struggles. So what did they learn through this incident, apart from the fact that their teacher might well be the promised Messiah, or possibly even the Son of God? Continue reading

Guest Post: The Story the Universe Tells

Hubble Ultra Deep Field, by NASA, ESA, and S. Beckwith (STScI) and the HUDF Team

I like to joke that I built a loft conversion on our house so that I could get an uninterrupted view of the sunset across the city’s rooftops from the large windows we installed. Expensive sunsets! In actual fact, the roof windows have enabled me to enjoy the delights of the sky at night more than at sundown (when I’m normally ferrying children to bed). After breastfeeding my daughter in the night, I’ll gaze at the stars for a few moments before heading back to bed. However grumpy I am about having got up, those few moments of starlit wonder reassure me that there is a much bigger picture than this interrupted night. The stars speak of a greater plan and purpose by their simple majesty. Continue reading

Guest Post: The Great Divide? Science, faith, and the humanities

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Over the last few years, I’ve become interested in the Great Divide (which I don’t believe in) between science and religion, and I have tried to do my bit as a bishop in building some better bridges in the churches for which I’ve had responsibility. The Faraday Institute in Cambridge and the Equipping Christian Leaders in an Age of Science based at Durham have both been really helpful partners in the task, and this blog gives me the chance to say hooray and thank you to them both – and mention a great hero of mine.

Speaking at a recent Faraday event for local church leaders, I was struck though by another Divide. When I asked for a show of hands, I found that nearly half the participants had a further degree in science, and a those who had stopped studying science after GC(S)E’s like me were much in the minority. On reflection, the activists in both the Cambridge and Durham groups tend to be scientists too.

So where are all the humanities folk like me? Were they like me expected to “drop” science after their GC(S)Es? Have they been warned off by all the popular rhetoric of conflict? Do they lack confidence in the face of often technical subjects? Or is it easier just to leave science in its box and get on with life in ours? Continue reading