Conserving the Natural World – for its own sake or for ours?
We have just returned from spending time with family on Christmas Island. Two thirds of the island is a National Park, the responsibility of Parks Australia. It's a small island (19km by 14km), most of which is covered by monsoonal forest and it is home to several endemic plant and animal species. Since human settlement in the late 19th century some species have already become extinct. Several of the animal species are on the endangered list. One of these, the Christmas Island flying fox, the last remaining native mammal, is an important pollinator and rainforest seed-disperser. Without the fruit bat, the forest may be endangered. They are the subject of constant monitoring. Two bird species are also endangered (Abbott's boobie and the Christmas Island frigate bird).
Eradication programmes targeting feral cats and yellow crazy ants are ongoing.
Two other species – Lister's gecko and the blue-tailed skink – are now extinct in the wild, but are the focus of a re-breeding programme in a specially built, temperature controlled facility – 'lizard lodge'. We didn't see the gecko (it is nocturnal), but we did see the gorgeous blue-tailed skink. In the last few days, some of these animals have been flown to the Cocos Islands to see whether they can survive naturally on one of the islands that is free from predators.
Conservation programmes also include the re-forestation of areas once cleared for rock phosphate mining. Nearly a half a million trees have been grown in the park's nursery and planted out into the conservation areas.
Conservation on this tiny island requires resources – human, costly infrastructure and finance. Now multiply that by conservation programmes that are ongoing all over the world. (Think - zoo breeding programmes.) Why do we humans work so hard to preserve species in danger of becoming extinct? Why does conservation spark such a passionate response from so many people, whether it be expensive breeding programmes or volunteering to care for a patch of bush?
Any project designed to return nature to its pristine state by us withdrawing human interference is to mis-understand the physical world. There always has been disequilibrium , disruption and constant change. “Any attempt to maintain climate, or ecosystems or species is ultimately undertaken because it serves the needs and desires of humans, either to directly sustain us or to preserve features of the natural world that increase the quality of our lives.” So its al about us! – so that we can continue to see the colours of the Great Barrier Reef, gaze in wonder at the Giant Pandas, continue to receive the essential eco-services of bees and other insects, ensure the continuing diversity of the genetic pool, ensure our food supplies are not at risk through unintended consequences. We are just beginning to realise how everything is connected: one species suffers and there are all sorts of knock-on effects, some of which are quite unpredictable.
We need to preserve species and genetic diversity in order to ensure that we can continue to enjoy the environmental services essential for our survival. Does that argument for conservation satisfy you?
The problem for me is that it puts human beings at the centre of it all. We are embedded in a whole universe of wonders from the mysteries and beauty of interstellar space to the complexity of the sub-atomic world - and we put ourselves front and centre – again!
Is there another way of seeing our world other than from a human-centric viewpoint? Another way of being? Another more humble and less hubristic way of approaching the existential questions now coming at us with increased urgency?
The climate crisis and rapid species extinction word-wide do threaten the future of us all. Do we respond to these threats merely for the sake of our own survival? Or is there something about the world and its rich diversity of living species, the human race and its many cultures, languages and ways of being, that invites us to respond with wonder and profound respect.
Ancient wisdom does suggest that there might be a further dimension with which we have lost touch. Anthony of the Desert (c. 251-356) and Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274) said there are two books of scripture: the first is the natural world; the second, the written Bible. St Paul understood this too: “For what can be known about God is plain to (us), because God has shown it to (us). Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.” (Romans 1:19-20) John Wesley in one of his sermons wrote: “… we are to see the Creator in the glass of every creature; that we should use and look upon nothing as separate from God…” And Martin Luther: “God writes the Gospel, not in the Bible alone, but also on trees, and in the flowers and clouds and stars… In a mouse we admire God's creation and craft work. The same may be said about flies.”
If we want to know about God, it is plainly there for anybody to see and understand in the material world around us (Paul). Our world is God's creation and we can know God in it and through it.
God has created and loved the universe and our world into being. When we destroy, whether in ignorance or wilfulness, we are destroying the loving, careful handiwork of God. Is that not enough to make us pause when we reflect on what we as human beings are doing to the planet?