"We are part of nature...not its steward": Interview with Allen Putney

MPA News

Allen Putney has more than three decades of international experience in the planning, management, and financing of protected areas. He leads the Task Force on Cultural and Spiritual Values for the World Commission on Protected Areas (WCPA). He also co-edited, with David Harmon, the book The Full Value of Parks: From Economics to the Intangible (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2003). Below, MPA News speaks with him about religion, protected areas, and the place of humans in nature.

MPA News: In The Full Value of Parks, you write that religious traditions that developed in the Middle East tend to view nature in anthropocentric terms - relating to human welfare and concerns - whereas Eastern religions and the cosmovisions of traditional and indigenous peoples often relate to nature in ecocentric terms, viewing the ecology of humans and nature as a whole. Does this mean that in Western societies anthropocentric arguments will always outweigh ecocentric ones? Or, conversely, that non-Western societies will favor ecocentric approaches?

Putney: I think you are on slippery ground if you try too directly to relate spiritual traditions anywhere with specific approaches to government policy. Indeed, the evidence would seem to suggest that the western anthropocentric approach has dominated government policy in countries with eastern spiritual traditions, and few would argue that decisions on protected areas in western countries are made based on a specific spiritual tradition. However, I would not argue either that cultural traditions have no influence on government policy. Perhaps the best way to look at it is that cultures have a propensity to see the world in a way that is consistent with their spiritual traditions. Whether that propensity is expressed in a given government policy depends on the context at any given point in history. At the same time, the more the environmental movement integrates cultural and spiritual values into the array of values that argue for the establishment and management of protected areas, the more successful that movement will be.

MPA News: You write in the introduction to your book that "...we are part of nature, not its master, not its steward." The Catholic Church has been urging greater stewardship of environmental resources in recent years, as have a growing number of evangelical Christians in the US (see preceding article, above). Do you believe that these stewardship-related developments in Christianity fall short of what is needed to ensure adequate environmental protection?

Putney: While I applaud any movement by Christian churches to urge a greater concern for the environment, I do not see much evidence to indicate that mankind's stewardship capacity has proven to be up to the challenge of ensuring adequate environmental protection. We seem to be able to measure environmental destruction with great precision (for example, the rate of coral reef die-off) but in general are unable to do anything serious about it. I see little indication that man understands enough, or has the systems and will to act in a way that would come close to qualifying him to be nature's steward.

MPA News: One of the greatest challenges faced by protected area managers is compliance with site regulations. In your view, how do the various kinds of values on which a site is protected - spiritual, cultural, scientific, economic - affect the level of compliance?

Putney: My experience is that compliance with regulations varies enormously according to the local context, and no one set of values can be isolated as "the" reason for compliance everywhere. Certainly there are many excellent examples of cultures protecting places for spiritual reasons over long periods of time, but similar examples can be found where other cultural, scientific, or economic values have been the driving forces. However, I would say that the more we acknowledge and integrate cultural and spiritual values into protected area establishment and management, the more successful we will be in achieving their protection, and the protection of the environment in general.

For more information

Allen D. Putney, P.O. Box 4046, Incline Village, NV 89450, USA. Tel: +1 775 833 3626; E-mail: Allen.Putney [at] att.net