Towards Global Sustainability: A Faith Perspective
TOWARDS GLOBAL SUSTAINABILITY: A FAITH PERSPECTIVE
A lecture by Professor Sir Ghillean Prance as part of Warwick's Distinguished Lecture Series
Science and religion are not mutually exclusive. As part of the University of Warwick’s Distinguished Lecture series, Professor Sir Ghillean Prance explains the harmony between his Christian beliefs and his work as an ecologist.
With 88.5 per cent of the world’s seven billion people following a religion 1, faith matters. Whilst current public debates may make you think otherwise, atheism is not a prerequisite to scientific endeavour, and, with the majority of world views being faith-based in some way, it is arguable that understanding faith is at least a key part in public engagement by the sciences.
It is this conversation, between the public and scientific spaces that Professor Sir Ghillean Prance speaks of in his University of Warwick Distinguished Lecture. Sir Ghillean sees no need to separate his religious beliefs from his work as an ecologist and environmentalist.
“We should be taking care of the earth and not destroying it,” says Sir Ghillean. “The Lord God took man and put him in the Garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it - not to destroy it.”
In this guest lecture, Sir Ghillean discusses the positive role faith leaders are playing in the environmental movement – from the leadership of the Ecumenical Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church (dubbed ‘the Green Patriarch’ by Al Gore), who has brought together faith leaders from around the world to discuss environmental issues, to His Holiness the Dalai Lama who speaks of an ethical approach to environmental protection.
Environmental ethics are, Sir Ghillean says, a part of Christianity and Judaism. He points to Job 12:7-8 as an example:
What are they telling us today? says Sir Ghillean. “We’re getting more than a strong message from nature that there’s something wrong and we need to respond to it.”
Sir Ghillean’s work in ecology has taken him all over the world and allowed him to see that something is wrong first-hand. Amongst the many beautiful species – of both flora and fauna – that he has seen personally is the golden toad in Costa Rica. Sadly, this true toad, also known as the Monteverde toad, is believed to have gone extinct around 1989 as a result of climate change. The once humid rainforest habitat of the frog has been experiencing rising temperatures since the 1970s and now has a relatively dry season. As amphibians require constant moisture, it is believed these changing conditions have likely driven the species to extinction.
Sir Ghillean speaks of how the biological evidence for climate change is available globally, not just in the Costa Rican rainforest. The signs are evident from Mount Fuji in Japan to Ben Lawers in Scotland, where Sir Ghillean first began his career in ecology.
“Today, botanists from Royal Britannic Garden Edinburgh are showing that those rare alpines, saxifrage and other things, are gradually being displaced,” he explains. “The lowland flora is going up because the climate is changing. Since our mountains are very low, we’re going to lose our alpine flora.”
It is through the combination of his faith and career that Sir Ghillean sees the case for environmental sustainability as a moral one. He quotes Isaiah 24:5 to make his case, but points out that there are similar messages and beliefs across the major world religions.
Whilst Isaiah was talking about moral defilement rather than ecological damage, Sir Ghillean believes that the message here and the impacts of climate change cover the intersection of ethics and ecology.
“It’s the poor who suffer the most from this climate change,” he says. “In some places the rich are getting even richer and the poor poorer. When there’s 1.4 per cent of the world’s wealth with 20 per cent of the population, it is something we should truly be ashamed about.”
Finishing the lecture with questions from the audience, Sir Ghillean offers his views on a number of related subjects including:
(1) The World Factbook. https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/xx.html#people
Sir Ghillean Prance is the Senior Scientific Director of the Eden Project in Cornwall and runs a conservation and research project, for the organisation, in the Yaboti Biosphere Reserve in Misiones, Argentina. He is also a visiting Professor at Reading University and the McBryde Senior Research Fellow at the US National Tropical Botanical Garden in Hawaii.
Educated at Keble College, Oxford, Sir Ghillean began his career by training to be a plant taxonomist. In addition to his doctorate from Oxford, he has 15 honorary doctorates from universities in the UK, Norway, Sweden and the United States of America.
Over his 50-year career, he has led 16 expeditions to Amazonian Brazil and accumulated eight years' field work experience. He has a world-wide interest in the sustainable development of rainforest eco-systems. He is the author of 19 books, the editor of a further 16 books and has published more than 500 papers.
Sir Ghillean began his career at the New York Botanical Garden in 1963 and stayed until 1981 when he set up the Garden’s Institute of Economic Botany and became its first Director. In 1988 Sir Ghillean became Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew before moving on to become the McBryde Professor at the US National Tropical Botanical Garden in Hawaii from 2000-2002.
Elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1993, Sir Ghillean has a long list of honours including being the first recipient of the International Cosmos prize in 1993 and receiving the Lifetime Discovery Award from the Royal Geographic Society and The Discovery Channel. He received the Victoria Medal of Honour from the Royal Horticultural Society in 1999 and, jointly with his wife Anne, the David Fairchild Medal for Plant Exploration in 2000. Sir Ghillean won the Robert Allerton Award for Excellence in Tropical Botany and was knighted in 2005.
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