Thursday, September 22, 2011

Special attachments to nature

Today I read an article that told me that the koala is highly vulnerable to climate change. This is according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Today and places it in a list of only 10 species in the world.

Koalas, people and climate change: not a good mix by Christine Adams-Hosking

I visit a lot of environmental sites and read a lot of environmental newsletters. So I'm used to hearing bad news. But this article hit me in a way few other articles have.

My son loves koalas. He has about 10 stuffed toy koalas, along with a variety of other koala-related items. We pray for koalas quite often in our bed-time prayers. When he hears about koalas that are hurt or injured, he gets upset. He even once wrote a letter to Peter Garrett asking him to protect koalas. If you've ever wondered why there's a koala on this page, it's not just because it's an Australian animal. It's because my son loves koalas. In fact, he chose the picture.

I've always liked koalas. They're cute. They look cuddly. They're Australian. What's not to love? But I care about them a lot more now than I used to. My love for my son means I care about what he cares about. I consider koalas valuable because my son places value on them. He calls koalas good and I agree.

Just as I love my son, I also love God. And just as I value those things that are my son cares about, I should also value those things that God cares about. God wasn't just looking at koalas when he saw that they were good. He was looking at the whole of Creation. My care for nature must not stop with the koalas that my son calls good, but must extend to every part of the Creation that God calls good.

In saying that, though, we are finite creatures and cannot care for the whole of Creation in the way that God does. I'm afraid I'm never going to be able to look at a rat the same way I look at a koala. And my dog has far more worth in my eyes than any fleas or ticks that might attack him.

Therefore, I think having a special attachment to a something in nature (whether that be an animal, a plant, a pet or a place) is a good thing. We can never come close to the love God has for all Creation. But in developing a special attachment to one part of nature, we may feel a tiny part of what God feels for all of nature. We may care about all nature, we may even love many parts of nature. But that special attachment to one part of nature takes that care and love to a new level - a level that cannot be sustained on a worldwide level. The picture on the TV screen of one individual hurting animal often impacts us in a way that statistics about the entire species cannot. When we have a special attachment for that specific animal, we are impacted even more.

I suspect that there are a few Australians who may not care at all about the polar bears, but who will care about the koalas. It's part of human nature to care most about those things that are closest to us. While we must not limit our care for nature to only those things that are close to us, I don't think caring more for specific parts of nature is necessarily a bad thing. It is through caring deeply about something specific that we often learn to extend that care out towards all of nature.

None of us loves every person in the world the same way God does. While we try to love all human beings and believe that all human beings have value, we naturally care more about the people that are closest to us. I love my sons, my family and my friends more than I love the person I pass on the street and just say hello to. And I care for that person more than I care for someone living in France who I've never met. And yet loving these people that I do know helps me to feel love and empathy for those that I don't know.

If someone told me that they loved all human beings, but had no one human being that they particularly loved, I would wonder how well they really loved human beings. And yet often I think we talk about care of nature in very general terms, without delving deeper into the specific relationships people have with parts of nature. And I would say that our highly mobile society means we are less likely to form those attachments to nature in terms of place. It is when we become familiar with a particular place, that we often develop an attachment for the birds, the animals and the plants that belong to that place.

Yes, God calls all of Creation good. And yes, God cares for it all. And as we seek to follow God, we must recognise the intrinsic value of all of nature, as opposed to only seeing the value of things that provide benefits to humans. However, I don't believe this means we need to try and care for each part of nature exactly the same way. Nor does it mean that we should avoid cultivating a special attachment to certain parts of nature. It is through those attachments, that our love for nature may most closely mirror God's own.  


  1. A helpful reflection - thanks!

    Perhaps the category of neighbour may be of some use here. Within the concept is implied proximity, and the parable of the Good Samaritan includes at least geographic proximity (if not cultural). But it also challenges a narrow view of such proximity, implying that it we may find our neighbourliness expanding as we meet new situations and our love expands to reach out to the newcomer into our context. In a world where our actions have significant global, intergenerational and interspecies impact, then I think once more our concept of neighbourliness needs to expand, though it does so not by starting from a universal (love for all), but from the particular (love for this one who has crossed my path).

  2. Once further thought: perhaps a more accurate title for this post would be "Specific attachments to nature", since the content is not about certain people who have a more pronounced attachment than others (as some may assume from the title), but that there are particular bits of nature to which we may well legitimately find ourselves more attached.

  3. Hi Byron,

    Yes, you're probably right about the title. I'm not very good at coming up with titles. I might change it if I can.

    And thank you for your thoughts about the Good Samaritan. I found it very helpful to think about how our concept of neighbour needs to expand, but starting from the particular rather than the universal. When I think about the Good Samaritan, I tend to think nore about how it refuses to let us put limits on who our neighbour might be and not so much about how it is a story of love expressed in one particular case. Sometimes we can be so focused on the universal love that we can ignore the needs of those that are closest to us, needing our help.