Meera Baindur: The Curious Case of Conservation: Biology, Management or a Practical Science?

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In her talk, Meera Baindur tried to explain the relationship between the ethics of conservation and religion. She began by talking about the meaning of conservation and its conditions, and moved on to its understanding in the context of religion. Meera defined conservation as the maintenance of something in a stable manner. If there are any changes, they are restitutive. Sometimes, conservation refers to something that causes degradation and which requires containment. Conservation allows one to intervene – but this is a populist view.

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The concept of conservation is related to science and religion in three major ways:

  1. We find the idea of conservation in science arose as recently as 1985. It does retrospectively look back to Greek and indigenous traditions, but the conservation debate is one that has ensued very recently.
  2. It is involved in grounding both the idea of human and nature. We look at things like religion and culture in conservation as well. There is a rich field that has an influence and contribution in several disciplines.
  3. Conservationists are looking back at religious faith and indigenous tradition to determine ethics in conservation. These are a new discipline and thus they are free to borrow ideas from various traditions.

In some cases, it is conservation accommodating faith and tradition, and in other places, it is faith and tradition that accommodate conservation. Meera listed several examples of such instances.

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In her first example, Meera quoted Lynn White, who talks about man’s transcendence of nature, as given by Christianity. Christine doctrine presents mankind as being formed in God’s image, which gives humans the authority to “fill the earth and subdue it”. It mentions man’s authority over nature and justifies man’s dominance over it. Meera enunciated ‘The Despotic Model’ which argue for the male man as being given the authority to dominate over nature. Man becomes God’s Viceroy on earth. If God is the master of man, man is the master of nature. This is not a utilitarian value of nature. It is not only about exploitation of nature: it is also a doctrine that talks about the free will of man in nature. Man is allowed to investigate the behaviour of nature in any way he chooses.

In her second example, Meera detailed ‘The Stewardship Model’, which is based on the assumption of a benevolent and responsible God. God has given man the responsibility to rule over nature in his place. He is told to dress and maintain the garden of God. Unlike the despotic model, this model invites to respect and understand nature, and being involved in its conservation. This is similar to the ecofeminists, who talk about resources having no rights. They insist that the exploitation of nature is only handed over to male members of society. Culture gets a dominant position over nature.

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‘The Saviour Model’ uses a health metaphor to talk about conservation. It makes use of human biology to understand nature. Just like there is biomedical intervention in humans to deal with disease, there is intervention and change in practices to deal with problems of conservation in nature. Pollution is considered to be the disease of the earth, and solutions are formulated to counter or treat the disease.

Meera also mentioned ‘Nature-Human Divinity Models’. The first model in this category relies on the idea of God’s body as the world in which humans inhabit. The second model is that of the knower and the field of knowing. This is the dyadic model. The third model is the parent-child model. When the earth is in trouble, rather than mitigate the effects ourselves, we ask the gods to intervene on our behalf and save the earth. God is the parent and human beings are the children. The final model is called the ‘Ayurveda Model’ or the ‘Embodied-Emboldened Correspondence Models’. The ayurvedic sciences allow for the examination of micro and macrocosms, based on the idea of humans inhabiting a non-human environment.

One of the questions asked during the session enquired if religion has moved away from nature and consequently from science. Meera answered that we find certain paradigm shifts in the history of science, like the formation of the heliocentric models, which were not entirely influenced by religion. They were discoveries in themselves. It is attractive to think of a non-technology based living with nature, but it does not occur.

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Meera recalled how our understanding of nature comes from verifiable scientific knowledge, which is supplanted by cultural values and civic responsibilities. There is a tension being created between the three. Some conservation biologists insist on including the human element in understanding conservation. Without this, they claim that biologists focus only on nature-centric studies and forget about the influence on policy formation, to initiate change in human interaction with nature.

Meera mentioned about an important debate between the practice of conservation and its theory. The opponents discuss the problem as if conservation science had to be translated in order to obtain acceptance. There is a tension between the expert knowledge and practical knowledge of the layperson. This tension does not allow for a unity between experts and laypersons who actually deal with nature on a fundamental level.

One camp considers nature as the origin of human beings. Nature is the mother of human beings. The other camp, comprising of Latour and others, tries to understand what is human, what nature is and whether there is a concept of nature at all. The important question that requires further attention and examination is whether we just form the other , without it actually being there.

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Meera referred to Collective Conservation as a major move in bridging the gap between experts and laypersons. It has three main backgrounds,

  1. Conservationists identify an object of conservation and conceptually analyse such objects.
  2. They consider values in defining human-nature relationships. The idea that nature is beautiful and useful is articulated by these kinds of activists.
  3. Activists influence public policy in favour of conservation. They try to change and modify the way people think and behave within nature. They create laws in order to deal with human interaction with nature.

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2 responses to “Meera Baindur: The Curious Case of Conservation: Biology, Management or a Practical Science?

  1. The speaker’s premise that conservationism is the act of maintaining things in a stable state is not maintainable. Nature is itself in a state of flux, with various phenomena spontaneously cycling through it over time. Nature by itself is never stable!
    As the speaker has rightly pointed out, the term conservation has gained currency only in the recent past, but that has been as an antithesis to the un-inhibited exploitation of nature and its resources by a section of mankind. The realization that the rampant and indiscriminate rape of nature cannot be sustained and that life as we know could become untenable has spawned the idea conservation. Religion nor faith has nothing to do with it.

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  2. Pingback: 2013 Science and Religion Workshop | Barefoot Philosophers·

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