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Interview: Biologist Michael Soulé
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"Facts Compute, But They Don’t Convert"

Biologist Michael Soulé speaks from the heart.

by Lisa Jones

"It’s not death I mind," said Michael Soulé. "It’s the end of life that bothers me. And we’re precipitating the greatest wave of extinctions since the dinosaurs."

As a biology professor at the University of California, San Diego, in the 1970s, Soulé was increasingly disturbed that the natural world was going to pieces while scientists in strictly separated fields collected data. He pushed for the formation of a new, interdisciplinary approach to scientific inquiry that would tap established fields like ecology and population genetics to get a more holistic view of human impact on nature.

With the resulting discipline of conservation biology, Soulé met plenty of resistance in the scientific world. "Academics like pure, basic science that isn’t tainted by practicality," he says. "Conservation biology was." But he also gained an important band of early adherents, including E. O. Wilson, Paul Ehrlich, and Jared Diamond, whose support lent the fledgling field instant credibility.

Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb (and Soulé’s graduate school advisor at Stanford University), says Soulé has done more than any living scientist for the cause of preserving biodiversity. For nature writer David Quammen, Soulé has been "hugely important" because he combined "very solid ecological science with a zeal for connecting that science with conservation."

Conservation biology is now taught at 81 colleges, including graduate programs at Yale, the Universities of Wisconsin and Minnesota, and the University of California’s campuses at Berkeley, Santa Cruz, and Davis. Founded in 1985, the Society for Conservation Biology has nearly 6,000 members; its original journal, Conservation Biology, has been joined by others, as well as several textbooks.

In 1991, Soulé teamed up with Dave Foreman, one of the founders of Earth First!, to start the Wildlands Project, an ambitious effort to link large areas for ecosystem protection. The project is focused on large carnivores, which, Soulé points out, "are not just charismatic furballs with teeth" but "the governors of ecosystems. Without them, ecosystems often collapse."

Throughout his career of championing nature, Soulé often felt anger and disdain toward humanity, which was busy deforesting, paving, polluting, and otherwise defiling the planet. But now he is making peace with his own kind in ways that may come as a surprise to those who knew him in the early days.

The process started decades ago. In 1978, finding that professional success wasn’t making him happy, he left a tenured position at UC San Diego to move with his family to a Los Angeles Zen center. He didn’t take to the spiritual life the first time around, however. After five years at the center, he stopped meditating. But shortly after moving to western Colorado seven years ago, he started again.

These days his dual passions for conservation and Buddhism are starting to meld. The 67-year-old Soulé thinks a lot about compassion and letting go. Ultimately, he believes, the development of these traits will help conserve nature.

Sierra: How confrontational were you before you became a Buddhist?

Michael Soulé: You should talk to my first wife, who became a Zen teacher because of me. [Laughs.] When I was a young professor, she hated to go to parties because I’d always get into arguments with people, usually about science. I’d tell her that’s how scientists interact. They spar intellectually. They’re trained to criticize, to find the flaw in the argument. That puts you in a negative, hostile state of mind.

Sierra: But the world of science and politics as it relates to the environment is a hostile place.

Soulé: The potential for the emergence of people we call "our enemies" is infinite; they’ll always arise, and they believe that what they’re doing is ultimately just and necessary. We fantasize about getting rid of them, but it doesn’t do any good. This is as true in conservation as it is anywhere else. For example, if we got rid of Bush we’d have to deal with Cheney, who’s even worse because he’s smarter.

Sierra: But how do you employ the Buddhist values of love and compassion when you’re faced with George Bush, or people who want to drill for gas in a beautiful place, or a logging industry that wants to clearcut an old-growth forest?

Soulé: I don’t spend a lot of time loving George Bush. [Laughs.] His environmental understanding is so shallow that he’s able to convince himself he’s not lying when he says he’s an environmentalist. I wouldn’t say he’s an evil person, but he’s strongly ideological. He believes that corporations can do no harm, that individualism doesn’t have a dark side.

Environmentalists have to operate at many levels. We have to continue to sue, because the courts provide the only protection to nature these days. But at the same time, the more honest we are in our understanding of ourselves as individuals, the more effective we can be. The less we are concerned with winning, for example, the more people are likely to listen and trust us.

Sierra: But isn’t winning the environmental fight more important than soothing the feelings of the opposition?

Soulé: You can effect change by winning, but it’s not permanent. It’s temporary, because you win and they lose. And when somebody loses in a relationship, whether it’s political or personal, they’re going to want revenge. That’s why the political pendulum is always swinging back and forth.

Sierra: How effective is compassion as a tool to garner support for the environment?

Soulé: Some decades ago, an old friend told me he was trying to convince the governor of the Mexican state of Jalisco to set aside a botanically important area for a national park, and wasn’t getting anywhere. Just before leaving, though, the governor invited my friend to go horseback riding. While riding through a forest and reminiscing about the wild places they loved as children, the governor suddenly reined in his horse. He said, "Oh, now I understand. You love that place you want me to protect. Yes, we’ll do it."

I once wrote that the facts compute, but they don’t convert. I know when I’m giving a lecture and tears come to my eyes it has much greater impact than slide after slide of numbers, or even pretty pictures. An instant of honesty and compassion is more important than an hour of logical argumentation and the facts.

Sierra: You pushed for the creation of conservation biology as a way to connect science and conservation. Now you’re seeing connections between respecting nature and respecting the human heart. It seems as if your career has been dedicated to finding larger and larger networks of connections.

Soulé: One of the connections that’s become clear to me in the last year has to do with the search to find a way back from our plunge into environmental destruction on the physical level, and into despair at an emotional level.

Sierra: How are these impulses connected?

Soulé: When we look for ways to stop the extinction crisis we keep coming up against problems like greed. Most people feel they live in a world of scarcity. They feel if they are too generous, they won’t have enough for themselves; that happiness is the reward of self-indulgence. And our culture encourages the attitude: "I need more money; I need to be more attractive, secure, happy," and so on. But most philosophers or thinkers who have looked deeply into this question find just the opposite: Happiness comes from generosity and living simply.

Lisa Jones is a writer in Paonia, Colorado.

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