Thursday, March 15, 2012

Religion and Conservation Biology

In July 2007 I initiated the Religion and Conservation Biology Working Group of the Society for Conservation Biology Because of this, I'm sometimes asked to prepare comments addressing the intersection of religion and environmental work.  The following was prepared for Volume I of the Encyclopedia of Sustainability. The reference for this note appears at the end of this short comment.

Conservation Biology is an integrated, interdisciplinary response to the world biodiversity crisis. This relatively new field draws from a wide range of scientific disciplines in order to document the extent of Earth’s biodiversity, the impact of the human project on that biodiversity, and to formulate and apply approaches to conserve and restore that biodiversity.

Religion matters to this discipline because conservation of habitat and biodiversity takes place in a social and cultural context. Religion is frequently a major component of that context. Religions have played a substantial role in formulating views of nature and defining relationships of the roles of humanity in nature thus linking religious life and practices with habitat and biodiversity. For this reason, religions can help make essential and substantial contributions to rethinking and responding to the conservation of species.

Religions also appear to be increasingly responsive to environmental issues and the religious focus on the environment may well be a developing and continuing theme of theological inquiry and religious life. The principles and practices and knowledge of conservation biology can contribute to those whose environmental perspective has, in the past, been primarily informed by religion and theology.

The converse is also true in that an understanding of religious concepts and practices and how they are applied to governance and daily life, is equally essential to the implementation of effective and lasting conservation management strategies. Recognition of this important link is obvious in the increasing number of specialists in conservation organizations whose primary mission is to explore the religious and theological links with natural systems and to help develop and implement culturally attuned conservation strategies.

Finally, the imposition of conservation strategies on cultures in the lesser developed countries is giving way to the cooperative development of approaches to use and conserve habitat and biodiversity in sustainable ways. In fact, it might be easier to develop cooperative relationships between religions and conservation science in the lesser developed areas than in western nations where substantial tensions between various aspects of science and specific expressions of religion continue to exist and often obscure the critical nature of environmental issues. But even here we may be seeing increasing collaboration.

Please cite the above note as follows:

Baugh, Tom. (2010). Conservation biology. In Willis Jenkins (Ed.), The Encyclopedia of Sustainability, Vol. 1: The Spirit of Sustainability, p. 82. Great Barrington , MA : Berkshire Publishing Group.


In the morning light,
the snows on distant peaks
reflect the hope of spring to come,
and a promise is fulfilled.

In the morning light,
the tide rises against a sandy beach
and falls again with the passage of the day,
and a promise is fulfilled.

In the morning light,
a river flows between its banks
through fields and farms and crops that grow,
and a promise is fulfilled.

In the morning light,
we rise to greet a day of hope
of meadows green
of flowers in bloom
of tides that surge
in an earth restored
in a promise fulfilled.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Spirit of the Thing II

(Continued from the preceding post.)
What calls us here today?  Why do we gather?  What connections do we seek? 

To learn about plants?  Yes. To meet others interested in plants? Yes, that also.

But maybe something else?  Something more enveloping and inclusive…a more basic connection?

I think it may be the spirit of the thing.

What does it mean to speak of the spirit of something?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines spirit as a life-giving force…an animating principle…the essential or real meaning of something. In other words ‘spirit’ is the essence of something.

It is the spirit of the thing, the essential or real meaning of our connection with life that draws us here today. 

When Charles Darwin encountered his first tropical forest near Rio de Janerio in 1832 he spoke of experiencing, and I’m quoting him,  “…wonder, astonishment and sublime devotion…” Darwin sensed the spirit of those wonderful green mansions in which he stood.
The destruction of those green mansions has been compared by Darwin to “…burning a Renaissance painting…”  We have a lot of Renaissance paintings going up in smoke in the forests of this Earth...millions of acres every year.

Even in these mountains we can smell that smoke. Even with a growing awareness, we still have too much smoke. Our rivers and streams all too often run red with the soil of erosion. Our national, regional, and local conservation areas become increasingly surrounded with development .

It is a tough time for life on Earth. Colleagues of ours who study threats to species and habitats…who study extinctions…tell us that we are in one of the great extinctions of life on Earth.  Life has faced five major extinctions in its four billion years on Earth. The last extinction was caused by a meteor that inconveniently dropped in on us.

But the current extinction…the sixth extinction…is the only extinction caused by one species…by us…by humanity. 

The last time I was up on the Blue Ridge Parkway, I remembered a quote from William Bartram in which the great naturalist talked about his visit to the area around Franklin, North Carolina. Bartram said “…from the most elevated peak…I beheld with rapture and astonishment, a sublimely awe filled scene of power and magnificence, a world of mountains piled upon mountains.”  If we are here today it is very likely that we love these mountains. I really don’t know any other term to use. We have made our connection here. We sense the spirit of this place.

I’m sure most of us here have felt that awe.  We live in an incredibly beautiful and profoundly impressive part of the world with mountains piled upon mountains covered with layer after layer of the very plants we have come here to study.  Think of what we experience on almost any spring hike in these mountains.  Even during the worst of the drought years our springs trickled out from among the rocks and our diminished but still running streams. 

What may not be so obvious to many of us is that we live in one of the world’s more exciting laboratories of evolution. The creation of life is the heart and soul of these mountains and valleys…their essence, their spirit, if you will. In these coves and hollows and on these slopes unique, fascinating forms of life have evolved…have made those connections that we call natural communities. And we’re here today to make our connection with all of that.

We sense that we are part of this…part of the spirit of life on Earth and in these mountains.