Our Obligations to Nature

Article excerpt

If Isaac Newton owes his theories on gravity to an apple, Holmes Rolston III owes his philosophies to a flower.

While hiking in the mountains of Virginia, Dr. Rolston spotted a whorled pogonia, an endangered yellow and white orchid that grows in the Eastern United States. He sat and pondered the rare beauty. "I thought it was a good thing the flower was there, whether a human saw it or not," recalls Rolston, a tall, lean man with sparkling blue eyes and a quiet manner. From this encounter, Rolston began to form his ideas on the intrinsic value of nature and man's spiritual and ethical obligation to preserve it.

This concept has become the raison d'etre for the philosophy professor, who says he has spent his life in a lover's quarrel between science and religion. Though most scientists and environmentalists would hesitate to plant trees for God, and most religious leaders would not call deforestation a sin, Rolston insists the two are undeniably connected.

The earth, says Rolston, is the Promised Land of milk and honey referred to in the Bible, and man has a duty to protect it. He discussed this concept in his first article, "Is There an Ecological Ethic?" (1975). "We have a duty to preserve the whooping crane, and a duty to preserve the wolves," he says. "We have a duty to preserve endangered plants for what they are in themselves, because they are a part of God's creation."

For these ideas and their contribution to progress in religion, Rolston earned yesterday what is known as the world's most generous award.

As the recipient of this year's Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities, Rolston will be awarded the sum of $1,138,000 from the prize's foundation, which was started by Sir John Templeton, an American businessman who made a fortune in the stock market. Former recipients of the award include Mother Theresa, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and Charles Colson.

Sir John says Rolston's article is still an important milestone, one that effectively launched environmental ethics as a philosophical inquiry. "The discipline has since become inseparable from his name," says Templeton. "His is a career of remarkable accomplishments."

But Rolston says he is interested in the award only insofar as it furthers the ideas he has championed for more than three decades - applying religious teachings and ethics to environmental conservation.

Rolston's unique mix of expertise in religion, science, and nature began in the Shenandoah Valley, where his father worked as a pastor. After earning his bachelor's degree in physics from Davidson College, in Davidson, N.C., Rolston immediately began to pursue a religious education, eventually earning a PhD in theology and religious studies from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. He served as a minister for several years before returning to school, where he earned a master's of philosophy of science degree from the University of Pittsburgh in 1968. …