Category: conservation

Uttering heresy: Why David Attenborough may not be good for conservation

By , 26 February 2010 6:50 pm

There cannot be many people on the planet who have access to television who have not seen at least some part of one of David Attenborough’s wonderful programs on wildlife. Currently we are working our way (slowly) through Planet Earth on the new TV and very fine it is indeed. Here in the UK as the old man gets into what must surely be his last decade there are already murmurings as to how we should honour him at his passing. Westminster Abbey perhaps?

Now let me say at the start that I yield to no one in my admiration of Attenborough. He is an excellent biologist and presenter (unlike the present crop of natural history presenters who seem to be chosen on the basis of looks alone) and his affection for wildlife and natural world is undeniably inspirational. And yet I have been thinking the unthinkable, and wondering whether his programmes (and similar wildlife spectaculars) have actually been good for conservation. Some of you will find this a statement that borders on the offensive or even nonsensical. Surely these programmes have portrayed the wonder of creation in a way that we could never have imagined? True: but have they been good for conservation? Have they encouraged people to go out into the natural world around them and wonder?

You see the problem as I see it is that such programmes present a wildlife that is so utterly spectacular and stunningly awesome that real nature can only come as an anti-climax. The reality is generally inferior in both quantity and quality. In the UK we do not see happy flocks of penguins marching resolutely across ice floes, schools of bounding killer whales or swarms of innumerable iridescent butterflies. We do not even get close to wildlife: the best views I have had of most birds would have ended up on Attenborough’s cutting room floor. (I do have to say that we were very fortunate in Lebanon to get some marvellous views of raptor and stork migration that rank very highly in wildlife experiences. They, though, are the exception rather than the rule; you had to be there at the right time.) From the short programmes appended to Planet Earth it is apparent that in some cases it took weeks of waiting with equipment costing tens of thousands of pounds to get some of the imagery. The problem is that having watched such programmes, when you go out into the natural world you are frequently disillusioned; birds are tiny little dots in a shaking telescope, butterflies do not stay to be identified and your photos of seals amount to little more than a cluster of pixels. If you do persist with an interest in wildlife you may be tempted to become an eco-tourist and I am very ambivalent about ecotourism and uneasy as to whether it does more good than harm. The reality of conservation is that there is an awful lot of work and some of it is frankly dull and unexciting.

Now these blogs are not of course simply about conservation or anything else; they are if anything a rather hasty Christian perspective on such matters. But actually I wonder whether this problem of reality being only a pale imitation of art is far more insidious and far more widespread than just involving the natural world. Doesn’t Hollywood and the media constantly tell us that life is spectacular and awesome, a non-stop adventure of fun and excitement? Yet the reality is that much of life is drab weeks and drab weekends albeit at punctured with brief but passing moments of pleasure and joy. And the problem is that if you expect the pleasure and joy to be the permanent phenomenon then you will undoubtedly feel cheated at your miserable lot. Doesn’t the same also apply to marriage? Isn’t that supposed to be an endless sizzling rapture of romance? Well sometimes it is but a lot of times it’s, well, just ordinary. And none the worse for that.

I am happy to keep watching the David Attenborough films and long may he flourish. But I have learnt to have happiness with a brief glimpse of a solitary Goldfinch on my birdfeeder. This side of heaven it is surely damaging to expect too much and there is perhaps more merit in the ordinary than the world would have us believe.

Have a good week.

Symbolism, nature and conservation

By , 11 April 2008 7:02 pm

I barely remember my grandfather on my mother’s side; he must have died 50 years ago. He had fought in the First World War, been gassed and did not enjoy good health: he succumbed to a heart attack in his 60s. But he was a keen gardener and his extensive garden, increasingly less well-tended by my grandmother, long outlasted him. What I do remember is a cheap stone plaque in the garden, the words of which are still clear in my mind although I cannot have seen it for 30 years: ‘The kiss of sun for pardon, The song of birds for mirth, One is closer to God in a garden than anywhere else on earth.’

‘One is closer to God in a garden than anywhere else on earth.’ The line came to mind as I looked over Boaz’ comment of last week. It’s an interesting question: to what extent does the natural (or in this case the cultivated) world display or reveal God? I know enough theology to know that it is a vexed and complex issue to do with what is called natural theology. The key text is Paul’s statement in Romans 1:18-20. Let me remind you of it “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.”

As a good Baptist and a child of the Reformation I am wary of the symbolic. We are told plainly that God speaks in a saving manner only through his word and I would not want to dissent from that. The downside of this rule, if applied strictly, is that neither nature nor aesthetics has any real value. In Welsh nonconformity the practical working out of this can be seen in the chapels. For the most part these are functional buildings with very little to commend them in architectural terms. If you are lucky you may get a blue painted ceiling or some slight ornamentation on the pillars of the interior but otherwise they are self-consciously spartan affairs. All too often one’s first view of them is of some hard monolith looming up desolate against a grey moist sky. Anglicans, and others, at least have the benediction of stained glass in their churches.

Although I could quite easily trample theologically over my grandfather’s mantra about God being in nature, I will not do so. I think there is a faint but important vestige of truth in it: there is something about the natural world that speaks of God. I think the reason is this: all things, statues, music, books and yes, worlds, reveal something of their creator. The natural world does in some (undoubtedly limited) measure speak of the one who made it. After all what is the alternative? The city? That most certainly speaks of its maker: mankind. Skyscraper after skyscraper, mall after mall proclaims the boastful status of the human race: ‘behold what I have made’. Nature is a healthy counterbalance to the blasphemous man-centred atheism of the urban world.

As wiser people have said, the natural world acts as something of a mirror of God. If we stare at it and ponder it we see something of the one who made it. Oh we need a lot more – an awful lot more – to save us but it’s a first step. This, of course, is a reason why the natural world should be preserved. We may not, as some do, worship nature as God but in seeing it as an image of God we find it no less valuable.

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