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The Science of Compassion

Making the most of being human.

TAGS: WHERNTO: wellnes  erudite  righton 

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Chapter One: Dissecting Conservation’s Biggest Myth

I care deeply about the survival of the earth. Even as I write these words, I know that this exquisite jewel of a planet is at unprecedented risk. The land, air and seas cry out as they have never done before; the seeds of destruction have been planted by humankind and they are germinating and growing at a monstrous rate. As many have foretold, we seem to be on the eve of destruction. We can speculate that it may take a miracle to turn such a resistant, self-mutilating society around, stopping the cycle of abuse and beginning the slow process of rehabilitation.

Yet I can’t help but believe that there is a solution to this downward spiral that has so far eluded the traditional scientific community. This solution entails shifting away from what is conventional and measurable in a clear-cut physical, quantitative sense. Perhaps the time has come for science to evolve to that new level, to seek an alternate paradigm. Such a perspective would enable humans to discover a basic and simple logic, a global key to survival.

This evolution involves a new science: compassion.

The conservation movement in particular has, with troubling consistency over the decades, focused on the importance of species for survival and has downplayed the role of the individual. But just as leaves, bark, branches and roots are crucial to the growth and survival of a tree, so does an individual unit contribute to the integrity of the whole. Interwoven in the fabric of successful co-existence is compassion, the tie that binds together individuals, families, and communities. The huge global response to natural disasters in Indonesia, Haiti, and Japan (to name a few countries devastated in recent years) is evidence of the fact that compassion can have world-wide reach.

Agencies involved in “science-based” conservation have long been regarded as the natural world’s Messiah, the whip that keeps species in control by supporting the demise of certain animals through hunting. In addition, these agencies have been inclined to prohibit the public from sheltering injured and orphaned wildlife, thereby shackling the compassion righton of individuals whose hearts are driven to do the right thing. Yet it should be noted that even dictionary definitions of “conservation” are in conflict. Further, it appears that the definition of the word has either evolved or dissolved over the ages—depending on what side of the fence one is on. Consider the meaning of the word “conservation” in 1828: “The act of preserving, guarding or protecting; preservation from loss, decay, injury, or violation; the keeping of a thing in a safe or entire state; as the conservation of bodies from perishing; the conservation of the peace of society; the conservation of privileges. (Source: (Webster’s 1828 American Dictionary)

Now let’s examine a few modern definitions of the word from the same webpage noted above. Definitions of “conservation” are grouped in categories, for instance, agriculture, environment, technology and so on. This one in particular (environment) is of interest: “A philosophy of natural resource management that ensures their availability in the future by not being too greedy in the present. Conservation practices, by preserving land for future use by humans (the technical definition of conservation) has the secondary benefit of providing habitat and thus survival for many plants and animals not commonly thought of as resources, such as songbirds and wildflowers. The intelligent use of natural resources.”

Please note the ample reliance on such phrases as “management”, “use by humans”, and “resources”. Preservation of habitat for songbirds and wildflowers is termed a “secondary benefit”. The following definition on the same list pertains to conservation in agriculture: “In farming, conservation entails matching cropping patterns and the productive potential and physical limitations of agricultural lands to ensure long-term sustainability of profitable production.” Again, we note the words “sustainability” (on the surface, an innocuous word, yet often used by conservationist word dressers in order to legitimize and elevate the status of their activities) and “profitable production”.

So what happened to the simple concepts of protection and preservation? The words “guarding or protecting” from the 1828 version of Webster’s Dictionary conjure up images of a mother lovingly defending her young, while the other more modern definitions point to human management of resources, not only to preserve the environment for future generations of humans, but also for the sake of profit.

With all this in mind, we are left to wonder how one word has become so completely distorted over the centuries. Could it be that certain humans, masters of manipulation, once twisted the meaning of the word “conservation” to suit themselves, and the passage of time allowed the shift to remain, even to be reproduced in the online version of Webster’s dictionary?

Then, from Wikipedia’s science page, emerges this gem: “Many recent thinkers, such as Carolyn Merchant, Theodor Adorno and E. F. Schumacher considered that the 17th century scientific revolution shifted science from a focus on understanding nature, or wisdom, to a focus on manipulating nature, i.e. power, and that science's emphasis on manipulating nature leads it inevitably to manipulate people, as well.” Since conservation principles are essentially considered to be science-based, it follows that we may have found an explanation for the shift in definition discussed above.

Let’s focus now on the area of “conservation” known as hunting. Truth be known, every Conservation Officer I’ve ever dealt with has proudly admitted to killing as a pastime—in the name of food procurement, of course. But wait. Some have also confessed to the killing of bears and less succulent-tasting wildlife, because those animals “were a danger to society”. Others approve of trapping as a legitimate way to “manage” certain species of fur-bearing animals. Many hide behind a word curtain of “sustainability”, “good management” and “environmental stewardship”. It appears that destruction of individual living beings has become acceptable and very much the norm from a conservationist standpoint.

I am reminded of a rural neighbourhood incident, where a local Conservation Officer was called to the scene of a wounded six-month-old deer fawn. Unfortunately, while the mother and her other fawn had safely cleared a wire fence and landed on the other side without mishap, one youngster had managed to get tangled in the wire, damaging a leg in the process. A large group of neighbours quickly gathered around the injured fawn and kept the CO at bay until a representative from the animal protection community arrived. A battle of wills ensued, with the CO insisting that the fawn should be shot, the animal protection volunteer stating that she would be willing to transport the deer to a wildlife veterinarian for assessment instead, and the group of neighbours demanding that the fawn should be allowed to live. In the face of such staunch support for the fawn, the CO hesitated. In those moments, a brawny man stepped forward to initiate the process of lifting the wounded deer into the back of his pickup. Outnumbered, the officer from Conservation could do nothing but watch. His pragmatic, science-based approach was no match for the groundswell of compassion from the concerned neighbours. The fawn was safely transported to a nearby clinic.

I would like to say that the youngster survived and recuperated, but that was not the case. In spite of excellent care, he died of toxic myopathy just two days later. This condition is also called “capture myopathy” and is stress- related. The clinic veterinarian suggested that older fawns (rather than newborns, who do not know yet to be afraid) are more prone to succumbing to this.

With such a sad outcome, one might argue that the CO had been right, as the fawn died anyway. The official may have stated that a bullet in the head would have been preferable to two days of suffering and fear. But a woman representing the group of concerned citizens who had lobbied for the life of the fawn had this to say: “That animal’s life was worth fighting for. It was just the right thing to do. You know, where there’s life, there’s always hope.”

Meanwhile, the neighbours learned that there is power in numbers, and with their staunch commitment, they were successfully able to exercise their compassion righton. The Conservation Officer attending the scene learned about the tremendous power of compassion, that it is a driving force, and that it does not easily back down when threatened with legislation, policies, or other rulings that characterize modern society. It does not succumb to bullying tactics.

Perhaps he learned that compassion is contagious, and the cumulative power of its sources should not be underestimated.

Next chapter: Why is Compassion a Science?