Professor Sir Ghillean Prance, FRS
Interview by Nigel Bovey
He lives on the Jurassic Coast. He camps in the Amazon rainforest. He travels the world to save the planet. He has discovered around 350 new plants. Some bear the name prancei after him.
Former director of Kew Gardens, Fellow of the Royal Society and knight of the realm, Sir Ghillean Prance is the Indiana Jones of botany. Since the 1970s, Sir Ghillean has worked in the Amazon rainforest. He and his family have been welcomed into native communities. He spends a lot of time writing and talking about biblical perspectives on the environment.
In December 2007 he attended the UN Climate Change Conference in Bali. Its aims – to get universal agreement on how to reduce greenhouse gases after the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012 and how to help developing countries in a warming world – are close to his heart.
Sir Ghillean, how seriously should we be taking climate change?
When I started as a botanist, the biggest threat was the extinction of species. Even 15 years ago, that was the case. But today we have the added challenge of climate change. Climate change is driving species into extinction. It is causing sea levels to rise, which threatens the future of whole communities, especially island peoples. If we don’t do something about global warming, we will all suffer.
And what should that ‘something’ be?
A great deal of climate change is caused by exorbitant use of energy in Europe, the United States and other developed countries. If we expect the developing world to respect the planet, we have to set the example. If we in the West don’t reduce our per capita carbon emissions, then other countries will want to be as polluting as us. Even seemingly small things such as switching off lights, using energy-efficient light bulbs, recycling and using public transport are extremely important. China is developing so quickly that it is building one coal-fired power station a week, which is frightening. But China is also spending a lot at looking for alternatives. It is, for example, using twice as much non-fossil energy as the United States.
You speak about setting an example. What about your own carbon footprint – flying off to the other side of the world on conferences and field trips?
That is something that worries me. I try to compensate by making a donation to Climate Stewards, a Christian organisation which plants trees based on the amount of carbon produced in transporting a person round the world. We all need to do more than change the type of light bulbs we use. We’ve got to change attitudes. There has to be political will for change. I went to the Bali conference to lobby politicians and leaders. Christians should be lobbying more at local, national and international levels. To speak about it more broadly, it’s about selfishness. We in the West have got to cut our extravagant, greedy lifestyles.
The cutting down and burning of the world’s rainforests is reckoned to account for some 20% of global CO2 emissions – more than the amount of CO2 emitted by all the world’s transport systems. Why is this happening? Is it caused by local people simply making a living?
The scale is bigger than that. Every year an area of the Amazon rainforest the size of Wales is cut down. Some of it is harvested by local people, but most of the time it is not Brazilians who are cutting down their own forests. Most of the time it is large, foreign corporations.
Currently the big driver of deforestation is the need to clear areas for the planting of soya beans to feed cattle and chickens in Europe and Japan. There is also a huge global demand for timber. In the Amazon, deforestation is driven by big companies who often drive locals off their land. People are being killed over it. The number of small farmers murdered because they resisted is frightening. In 2005, a 73-year-old American-born Brazilian nun, Sister Dorothy Stang, was assassinated because she defended the rights of poor communities against the timber barons. She is just one of many.
Having spent years living with tribes in the rainforests of Brazil, do you think such communities have a different outlook on the planet?
I have seen very poor people who are actually much happier – much less worried, less encumbered – than many people in the West. All they want is food and shelter, and they are content. These communities tend to share, while the West is very individualistic. Despite their wealth – and because of greed – many people in the West are living in misery. Becoming wealthier and wealthier does not equal prosperity. The West hasn’t taken enough notice of what the Bible says about the dangers of loving money, or of God and mammon not mixing.
When did your interest in botany start?
I wanted to be a botanist when I was a young child. I lived in the countryside and was therefore surrounded by natural history. As children are, I was driven by curiosity. I loved to go birdwatching and to collect plants. As I got to know more about plants, I became excited by the way a whole ecosystem fits together – what pollinates plants, what disperses the fruits and seeds to other places, that sort of thing. It started as a hobby but then I realised I could go on to study it professionally and make my hobby my job, which is fantastic.
How did your professional life take shape?
I was director of Kew Gardens for 11 years until 1999. Before that, I spent 25 years at the New York Botanical Gardens. Currently, I am a visiting professor at Reading University and scientific director of the Eden Project, for which I also run a conservation scheme. That takes me to Argentina for two months of the year, and I spend a similar amount of time working in Hawaii for the National Tropical Botanical Garden. Between fieldwork, I lecture on my work.
When were the seeds of your Christian faith sown?
It was while I was studying at Keble College, Oxford. On the first weekend I was invited to the Christian Union. I’d been to church occasionally and read several of CS Lewis’s books at school, but Christianity wasn’t a central part of my life. I went along on my first three Sundays at Oxford. On the third one I made a personal commitment to Christ and my life changed completely. In many ways it was completely unexpected. It took me by surprise. I hadn’t heard the faith explained in the way that the preacher, John Collins, did. After I made my commitment, I started going to Bible study groups, which made me see how nominal my faith had been as a teenager.
What does the Bible mean to you?
The Bible is my final authority. It is God’s written word. God has revealed himself in two ways; through his book of words and his book of works. As a scientist, I study his book of works, from which I learn more about how he created things and how the world works. But as a Christian the Bible is my textbook – the guideline – on how I should conduct my life.
Some people think that believing the Bible to be God’s written word is incompatible with believing certain scientific theories, notably evolution. Have you faced such a crisis?
No, I haven’t had a crisis with it, but I have thought about it a lot. Sadly, some of my scientific colleagues are put off the Christian faith because some people say that evolution and the Bible are incompatible; that you can’t be a Christian unless you believe that evolution is wrong. But the Bible isn’t a scientific textbook. To me, the important thing is that – as the Bible says – in the beginning God created. The Bible tells us that when God created he saw that it was good. Creation is something that brings pleasure to God. How he created is not as important.
Does the theory of evolution lend itself to a particular Christian or anti-Christian world view?
No, of itself evolution doesn’t have a spiritual dimension. After Darwin presented it, the Christian author Charles Kingsley said that it was wonderful that God allowed his creation to do its own thing.
The Genesis account of creation describes humankind as being made ‘in the image of God’. What do you take that to mean?
To me it means that – while there are similarities with, say, the apes – humans are different from the animals. In fact humankind is different from anything else created in two particular respects: we have senses and rationality, and we have a soul.
What about the other side of that question: What image do you have of God?
I believe in a triune God. To me, the three-person-in-one God is important because the mission of Christ for a sinful world was vital. I can also say that there have been many times when I have experienced the Holy Spirit. My vision of God is one that embraces all three aspects, and my way to God the Father is through Jesus Christ, God the Son.
How does your faith impact the way you do science?
It means I have certain standards of behaviour. It makes one honest in one’s science. When I was the director of research at the New York Botanical Garden, I had to make a lot of decisions that had ethical and moral dimensions to them. I once offered my resignation because the garden was fundraising through the misfortunes of children in Ethiopia. I thought that was immoral. Fortunately, my staff backed me 100%. As a botanist, I am working with God’s creation. All around me I see that what humankind is doing to the planet is motivated by greed. I think it is very important that the church at large, and that I as an individual Christian, should be a strong voice in defence of creation, or ‘the environment’ as some people call it.
Let’s put that the other way round, how does your science impact your faith?
The more I learn and delve into the mysteries of how creation works – how things in nature intricately work together – the more it confirms my faith. It is God who brought life into being. Big Bang theory, for example, says that there was a moment of creation. Science is agreeing with the Bible, which teaches that there was a moment when God brought something out of nothing. That should be rather comforting to Christians.
What is miraculous is that there are God-given physical laws that hold things together. Those laws make this planet inhabitable, whereas none of the others are. Even though we are discovering more of space, we haven’t found anywhere else capable of supporting life. As far as we know, the right conditions for life exist only on Earth. If those conditions changed very slightly, life wouldn’t be possible. That, I believe, shows that it is God’s doing that we are here.
To what extent, if any, can science prove that God exists?
Proving God’s existence has nothing to do with science. There are many things – such as love – that we can’t prove. But I can say that I have personally experienced God in my life.
Some areas of science have obvious ethical implications – for example, nuclear energy in physics and human stem cell research in embryology. Does studying the life of plants have moral controversies?
There are no drastic ones, although at the moment there is a technique that is being abused – the way transgenic plants are made. Manipulating genes – introducing a gene from one plant into another plant because it has a characteristic we like – could do a lot to save millions of people who are starving. But in reality, it is being used to make money for shareholders of multinational corporations. The science is being abused.
So are you in favour of GM crops, which are so often the subject of Frankensteinian press headlines?
I am relaxed about the theory of genetically modified crops. I see no ethical dilemma there. But the difficulty is how you use the science. Nuclear power, for example, can make carbon-free energy which could save the world. It can also be used to make weapons which could destroy the world. As far as GM crops are concerned, I am all in favour of making a plant that produces better on arid lands or in salty conditions, or one that is disease-resistant. But the use of GM has been largely motivated by the multinational chemical companies. It is yet another example of greed that dominates the environment.
Having spent years living in the Amazonian rainforest and more recently making regular trips to the region, how easy is it for you to adjust between the cultures of the West and the developing world?
I face a real dilemma because one of the difficulties with some of the mission work I see is that Westerners not only preach Christ but they also preach their culture. I believe Christians should go into the world and make disciples but I don’t think we should be requiring other cultures to take on Western culture. In fact, some of the ideals these people live by are much more Christian those of the developed world. Most of the tribes I have worked with in Brazil live and work as sharing communities. When a missionary goes in and says ‘You must start a market economy and leave the countryside and move into the town’, that is wrong.
I have seen excellent missionaries who have understood the needs and ways of local people. I have also seen mistakes. Back in the 1970s, I ran workshops and in 1993 I published a book called Missionary Earthkeeping to encourage people to learn the whole of what the Bible teaches about caring for God’s creation – care for the environment and care for individual tribes. Nowadays the approach is better but that’s a message the West still needs to hear.
Christianity is sometimes blamed for the stripping of world resources. This criticism comes because some Christians are said to have taken the account of God giving humankind domination over the Earth as a licence to plunder. How do you read Genesis 1?
‘Dominion’ in the biblical sense does not imply domination. The dominion was not God’s authority to use up the Earth’s resources with no thought for the welfare of other cultures, other creatures, the landscape, the mineral resources, the oceans or the atmosphere. In the Bible ‘dominion’ means responsible rule, without exploitation. This is reinforced many times throughout the Old and New Testaments. Genesis 2, for example, talks about God making every tree that is ‘pleasant to sight and good for food’. Here nature has a twofold function – enjoyment and food – not just a single commercial function.
The story of Noah and the Flood, the laws about soil care and farming, the psalmist declaring that, ‘the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it’ and God’s reminder to Job of the wide range of the animal kingdom all speak about the wonderful biodiversity that God has made and with which humankind has been entrusted as stewards. The environment was important to Jesus. He knew that nature has much to teach us. For example, when telling his disciples not to go looking for life’s meaning or personal fulfilment in things he pointed them to the environment: ‘Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.’ That’s a lesson we still need to learn today.
Environmentalists and green campaigners talk a lot about biodiversity, but what exactly is it?
Biodiversity is a way of expressing the total variation of life. There are three components. Species is the obvious one and, of course, there are many different species in the world. Then there is variation within a species – genetic diversity. That’s why humans look different from each other. Thirdly, there are habitat differences.
The earth faces a biodiversity crisis. Because we are cutting down and burning the forests that maintain our climate, we are losing the species of plants and animals that will support us in the future. In the face of global warming and environmental disaster, I often ask myself why God doesn’t step in and put it right. After all, he stepped into history before and sent his Son when we were in trouble. But it seems that God is entrusting us to put the world right.
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Is it possible to believe in God in the modern era of scientific discovery? In a series of in-depth interviews, scientists from fields as diverse as botany, immunology and physics talk about their scientific research and their faith in God.
All the interviews on these pages were conducted by Major Nigel Bovey and first appeared in The Salvation Army newspaper The War Cry © The Salvation Army. For further reprint permission, please contact The War Cry.
Read these interviews and others in God, the Big Bang and Bunsen-burning Issues by Nigel Bovey (£8.99, Authentic Media)
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