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Extinction and the Empty Case

 Helen Billam
An empty glass case with a sign reading Life

There is an empty glass case at the centre of the Manchester Museum of natural history. Surrounded by a cornucopia of stuffed animals and a suspended whale skeleton, the empty case invites the visitor to think about life – or the lack of it – in the future. It’s unsettling and thought-provoking, and it set the scene well for our recent Extinction and Biodiversity conference.

Extinction and biodiversity are a huge and existential topic, one that church leaders, on first glance, may not think impacts their daily ministry. But it is becoming increasingly significant in relation to politics, farming, climate breakdown, and other areas both spiritual and secular. Indeed, we saw the most attendees of any ECLAS senior leader conference so far, a signal that this is a topic which people are eager to learn more about.

Our two-day conference started with a scavenger hunt around the museum, with PhD students from Manchester University’s School of Earth, Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences acting as guides. This was more interactive than our usual conferences, and delegates fed back that they appreciated the chance to explore the museum and engage with the material in a hands-on way. A theme which emerged over the two days was embodiment, and how our experience of nature has to be more than an academic exercise; so it was helpful to engage with the exhibits in person rather than simply hear about wildlife in an abstract way.

Five people having a panel discussion while a projector displays Extinction and Biodiversity

The subtitle for the conference was Evolution, Action, and Hope. We benefited from the input of theologians including Bethany Sollereder (Edinburgh University) and Peter Scott (Manchester University), as well as practitioners like Vanessa Elston (Diocese of Southwark) and Janel Curry (American Scientific Affiliation). All of them spoke about hope and action in different ways. One view was that humans cannot be relied upon to do the right thing, but they will almost always do the convenient thing; environmental solutions therefore need to be easy and embedded as the default option. We spoke about the need to be more comfortable talking about death – as Christians, this should be where our strength lies, yet we often avoid it. Another possible path to change was a return to monastic rhythms of life – acting as a community, rather than individuals, with the closer relationship with nature that is characteristic of many monastic orders.

Historian of Science Duncan Scott (Manchester) shared insights from his upcoming book, and raised the point that religious imagery is often drawn on in debates about extinction – parallels are drawn to Eden, and paradise lost, with the unspoken question being: What would paradise found look like? It was a recurrent theme as we spoke about conservation efforts amid shifting baseline syndrome – whether we should be conserving nature as it has been at any given point in the past, or for a future, warmer world.

A man stands at a lectern while five seated people look on smiling

A public panel event in the Church of the Holy Name allowed us to open this debate up to a wider audience. The panel, made up of Bishop David Walker, Profs Sadiah Qureshi (Manchester) and Colin Beale (York), and Natural England’s Principal Specialist Mick Oliver answered audience questions from “How can we encourage people to really love the world in which we live?” to “Is species extinction willed by God?”.

It wouldn’t be an ECLAS event without hearing from scientists at the leading edge of their fields, and we were incredibly fortunate to have Prof Susanne Shultz and her team tell us about their work in conservation biology and evolutionary ecology. Their presentations and lab tour challenged our previous assumptions about extinction, as we heard about their efforts to eradicate parasitic worms in developing countries. We also heard how they are helping to make animal translocations, where individual animals such as rhinos are moved to new areas, more successful.

Three people in lab coats smiling at a lab bench

The Wild exhibit at Manchester Museum ends with a large wall, papered with colourful flyers advertising community gardens, welly libraries, climate action groups, walking meet-ups, volunteer landscape stewards, and other opportunities to respond to the climate and biodiversity crises. This practical response seemed a good way to end our own conference on this theme. In our final session, we shared resources, reflections, and ideas for future work, recognising that while true solutions require systemic change, the people in the room represented powerful institutions with capacity to influence the status quo.

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Article By Helen Billam

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