BY SYDNEY ROSS SINGER –  Is environmentalism a science or a religion? If you want to improve the environment, should you ask a scientist, or consult a priest?

According to some members of the invasive species community, religion is a large part of environmental management.

I discovered this while discussing a recent article supporting weeds on the CGAPS listserve. CGAPS is the Coordinating Group for Alien Pest Species, and all sorts of government and private entities are part of the listserve, which discusses environmental issues.

I shared a recent Wall Street Journal article entitled, Why We Must Learn to Love Weeds: They’re eyesores, menaces, botanical thugs.

But we shouldn’t forget their virtues, especially as emblems of wild, wonderful nature.

A reply came quickly from one person, concluding with the statement, “It would be an insult to the land to let them (native species) fade from existence.”

I replied, “You end your comments with, “It would be an insult to the land to let them fade from existence.” Are you expressing some sort of religious philosophy, like a form of animism? How do you insult the land? I am interested in this, since I see much of the invasive species rhetoric as a religion and not a science.”

That certainly got some people hot under the collar. One wrote, “Papa? Wakea? Haloa? Names you are probably not familiar with, but gods and ancestors which form our world view. Your understanding of this would go a long way toward fostering righteous stewardship of the land. Denegration of the land under your world view is none different than foresaking a family member to poverty.”

Another person added, “Actually its seems that the anti-invasive species rhetoric is increasingly driven by politics and political will – as a platform for chest pounding. That religion and people’s drive to restore Hawaiʻi may be intertwined I do not doubt – but it’s insulting to hear that you do not see conservation as a science since it has been taught as such in schools and universities and offered as a degree program in many parts of the world.”

A native Hawaiian practitioner added, “The reliance on science alone is part of the problem. Human values are always part of conservation, and at the heart of it, those who are dedicated to the protection of our biological heritage in native plants and animals anywhere in the world may use science as a tool, but their devotion is based on much more than that. It is not at all wrong to acknowledge that our spiritual health and foundation is based in our environment, and if there is religious or cultural value in native plants and animals, that is an important and valid argument for their protection. Many Hawaiians view the invasion of native ecosystems and loss of native species as deeply symptomatic of the historical loss of indigenous rights and culture. Singer’s implication that acknowledging this is unimportant because is it unscientific does not sway me from my dedication to the continued control of alien invasives, and the protection and recovery of native species.”

I agree that values, and the religions which promulgate those values, are part of all human activities, including environmental management. Using science to achieve the ends as defined by those values is what happens all the time.

But there are problems with this.

Whose values and religious beliefs should prevail in environmental management?

Modern day Hawaii is made up of numerous cultures, religions, and divergent values. Some value nativism, and others value cosmopolitanism. Immigrants may value immigrant species and prefer environmental management policy that import these species. Native people may see this as an imposition on their way of life and resent all immigrants, including plants, animals, and people.

Who should prevail? That is a political question, not a scientific one. Arguments for invasive species control need to be openly political and not pseudoscientific, as they currently are, justifying such activities as good for the environment when they are really only good for our personal value system.

Using science to justify one’s religious position corrupts science.

When science is used to justify one’s values and beliefs, it is no longer science, but propaganda.

You can tell propaganda from science in the presentation. When invasive species are discussed, for example, they are demonized by the “scientists” as they make a case for eradication. The good these species do is ignored, and the bad is exaggerated.

Religious values will also limit the conclusions of scientists, which is an unscientific thing to do to a scientist. For example, if a scientist discovers that an introduced species, such as mangroves, improves the water quality in Hawaii better than native species do, it would be sacrilegious to suggest that Hawaii’s environment could be improved upon by introducing mangroves. (Past introductions of mangroves were during a time when promoting immigration of species and cultures to Hawaii was politically correct).

Science is only a tool. Religion and values give us the purpose for using that tool. But lets be clear and honest. The disagreements over which species to kill and which to save is only about values, which means none of us are right or wrong. We are all expressing the vision of the world we wish to live in.

This also explains why there is so much passion when discussing the environment. Our world visions reflect our basic values. If this were merely a scientific debate there would be less passion and more research and data.

In the final analysis, as modern civilization transports species around the globe, and as the world undergoes climate change, the environment itself will “decide” on which species to reject and which to accept. We can all argue and disagree on what is “best” for the environment. But what we are really arguing about is what is “best” for ourselves.



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Sydney Ross Singer is a medical and environmental anthropologist, author, and director of the Good Shepherd Foundation, located on the Big Island. Sydney is a pioneer of applied medical anthropology, and he is also the director of the Institute for the Study of Culturogenic Disease.