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The divine word in biology

As many of you know, I'm not only the National Executive Director of CPAWS, I'm also student clergy in the United Church of Canada. I was recently asked to preach at First Unitarian Church in Ottawa and decided to discuss the relationship between what conservation biology tells us and what we can read into that when it comes to our relationships. Here is the text of that presentation:

The Divine Word in Biology

There are many ways in which the divine spirit speaks to us. Through sacred text. Through others. Sometimes directly – some hear the voice of God, others through text messages. Personally I like to follow Jesus on Twitter. He’s got quite the sense of humour! But increasingly I’ve become aware of the multitude of ways in which the divine speaks to us through nature.

Yes, the beauty of nature is magical and I love forest-bathing as much as the next guy, but I’m not talking about connecting to nature, I’m talking about what nature’s science has to teach us. Over the last number of years, as the National Executive Director of CPAWS, I’ve been surrounded by biologists and conservation scientists – and the more I was immersed in that world, the more I saw some key lessons that God seemed to be teaching by example through creation.

The number of ‘aha’ moments I’ve had are too numerous to lay out in a short reflection, so instead I’ve chosen three particular lessons that might be suitable for our time: balance, connectivity and inter-dependency.

Balance is a word that’s been bugging me lately. I hear it used frequently when some folks are trying to do the opposite. When it comes to protected areas – those parts of nature that we set aside so that they may remain wild – there is an increasing tendency to “balance” industrial development with conservation.

The federal government has decided to create marine protected areas. Canada trails the world when it comes to the number of areas we’ve set aside in our oceans. In fact, we’re protected a little over 1% of our oceans in our 150 years of confederation. So they’ve decided to drive towards the international target of 10% by 2020. This is commendable. So in that spirit, the government announced the creation of a large marine protected area called Laurentian Channel – an area almost 12,000 square kilometres large off the southeast coast of Newfoundland. However, they are leaving 88% of that area open to oil and gas development – in the interests of ‘balancing industrial development and nature conservation’.

First of all, protected areas are supposed to be the offset to non-protected areas. If you’re doing industrial development in protected areas, then you’re essentially leaving everything open to development. That’s not balance. In fact, that’s the opposite of balance. And we’re seeing growing encroachment of commercial development in our National Parks too, all at the expense of conservation, in the very places we’ve set aside for protection. What are we balancing?

E.O. Wilson, the conservation scientist who coined the word biodiversity, is telling us that nature needs at least half to be able to sustain itself. With one percent of our ocean protected and 10 percent of our land, we’re a long way from balance.

But the same is true in the ways we spend our lives. Are we balanced? We live in a society that celebrates and respects those who work 12 to 14 hours a day and who are never unplugged from their phones. Time spent with family or friends – or even time spent alone to reflect, or simply be – is lauded to some degree, but when push comes to shove, balance goes out the window in favour of our work.

When I worked in politics, this was particularly true for me. After having realized that I had not had a day off in three months leading up to an election campaign, my cell phone rang at 11:30pm one night from a candidate who was having trouble. My partner Scott turned to me and said – ‘Are you a heart surgeon? Will someone die if you answer this question tomorrow?’ At first, I was angry. Doesn’t he realize how important my work is? But with a little perspective, I realize that he was right. My time and focus wasn’t balanced.

If nature is telling us that it needs balance to survive, we likely need that too.

Which leads me to the issue of connectivity. For years conservationists worked to protect little parcels of land to ensure that there were representative samples of different ecosystems that would survive into the future. It didn’t take long for us to realize that these postage stamp areas surrounded by development were not sustainable. That’s why CPAWS pushed hard for wildlife crossing bridges and culverts in National Parks where highways pass through. That’s why conservation biologists are suggesting that we plan our protected areas in connected ways so that species can move between them. After all, they don’t recognize human boundaries like national borders, or park entrances.

The importance of connecting protected areas scientifically is important because of gene pools. When populations of species are isolated from one another, they are more vulnerable to diseases and will usually die off. Well my friends, I would argue that it isn’t very different when it comes to human relationships, particularly social and political views.

In the Trump-era, but even before it, we’ve isolated ourselves into pockets of people who believe and think exactly the same way we do. We’ve developed a stubbornness about our own views and are quick to cut down those who express a different one. We’re hearing more and more about social media’s echo-chamber effect and we’re seeing the results of our isolation in politics, the news and the general tone of discussion.

Now… let me remind you that I come to these considerations from a fiercely partisan history. I was that guy who spent hours on television and radio panels debating other political parties to prove that I was right and they were wrong. There was no active listening involved. I listened to their arguments only so that I could find fault with them. I wasn’t listening in order to connect with them or incorporate elements of their thinking into my own.

If we swim in our own gene pools for too long, we make ourselves vulnerable. I think for many of us, there is a sense that if we concede that someone has a point, even though their argument on the whole is one we disagree with, that we give them credibility. We treat being right as a scarcity – we want to hold it all to ourselves.

And this is where prejudice comes from. Prejudice doesn’t have to be about skin colour, gender or sexual orientation – it can also be about the categories we put people into. "Oh… he’s a conservative so I will never agree with him on anything". Or "she’s a fundamentalist so we have nothing in common". We self-isolate and we end up clumping people together as if this is the natural state of the world and those on the left should stick with each other and those on the right should also band together, but never the twain shall meet. This is exactly the story of dehumanizing that terrorist groups like the Islamic State thrive upon. It is the stuff of wars and conflict – sometimes over the smallest differences. The more we celebrate pluralism – not just the cultural one, but also the political spectrum one – the more we will ensure our survival as a species.

I come to my third example of how creation is telling us to live our lives. Inter-dependency.

Ecosystems are an incredible thing. The inter-dependency is phenomenal. One species ensures the pollination of plants, another provides nourishment to its prey, the right level of shade permits food sources to grow, good healthy soil and roots hold water so that other areas don’t flood. It’s a miracle to see all these things in delicate balance.

Twenty years ago, most of us saw bees as an annoyance and would have celebrated their decline – particularly those of you who have a phobia of bees. But now we see that their absence and decline may be triggering a loss of pollination that will have a huge impact on food sources. A missing species as small as a bee can have significant implications for the health of an ecosystem. It is called a “system” after all. A system is only as good as the sum of its parts. A breakdown in a system has consequences.

Because I’ve worked in the environmental movement for the last number of years, I’ve come to appreciate what I call the ‘ecosystem of groups’. Each organization has a different role to play. Some work with industry to improve their practices to mitigate the impacts on nature. Some lobby governments by getting their supporters to write letters and petitions. Others use more radical means by dropping banners or chaining themselves to equipment. My view is that the environmental movement, like any healthy ecosystem, needs all of these. I may not like some of the tactics or lack thereof, employed by my colleagues in other organizations – but I wouldn’t be able to function effectively without them.

That’s why when I hear Jesus say ‘love your neighbour’, I’m hearing an implicit message of ‘love the wholeness of your ecosystem’. Thankfully Jesus isn’t asking me to like everyone. He’s asking me to love them and appreciate the role they are playing in our world. Wholeness is the goal, not just some namby-pamby sense of being nice to each other. Our health as a human society needs relationships with all aspects of our humanity, each of us playing a role and continuing the evolutionary path we journey. 

There is a key concept that is becoming more and more obvious as we look at the species we are losing, and that is the biological tipping point. As we monitor a growing number of species that head towards extinction, we’re realizing that they don’t just decline at a steady rate – they have a tipping point. When they hit a certain number, their numbers decline more steeply. Their recovery becomes almost impossible.

I worry about our social tipping point in our relationships. I compare the loss of specific creatures in a species’ population as the loss of trust, communication and love that gets whittled away, piece by piece, until we hit the tipping point. That delicate balance, those connections we experience, the wholeness of the ecosystem that nurtures us – can be lost and become really difficult to build again. Starting an ecosystem from scratch is all but impossible. Even the reintroduction of one species is expensive, time-consuming and risky. Desertification is what happens in the natural world when ecosystems are undermined.

So while I am preoccupied by the loss of our natural world and the beautiful diversity within it, I share with you today my concern for our social world. I pray that our relationships will be full of life that multiplies itself many times over like living cells should. That our ears will help nourish the soil of harmony and coexistence. That we will build trust where it has been undermined and remain open to the evolution that is imprinted in the science of all living things.