Where religion and environment meet

Profile of Faculty of Agriculture prof Randy Olson

- September 20, 2012

Randy Olson, part of the Faculty of Agriculture's Department of Environmental Sciences. (Nick Pearce photo)
Randy Olson, part of the Faculty of Agriculture's Department of Environmental Sciences. (Nick Pearce photo)

Randy Olson has taught in the Department of Environmental Sciences at what is now Dal's Faculty of Agriculture for 28 years. He says his job is truly rewarding.

“I really enjoy the students as individuals. We get to know them here,” he says. “It sounds hokey, but a part of where I find the joy in my life is in what I do, and I’m so fortunate to have been able to make a living doing something that I really love.”

Dr. Olson teaches all of the first-year biology classes, as well as two second-year classes in plant diversity and structural botany.

“I love lecturing. You engage (students) when you’re lecturing. It’s not just me up there with this big distance,” he says.

He also strives to develop mutual respect in the classroom.

“I try to create an atmosphere where (students) are engaged in what we’re talking about. In the same sense, I ask a lot of questions, but I don’t call on somebody to embarrass them. I don’t want anybody to not like coming to class.”

Lessons from ecotheology

Outside the classroom, Dr. Olson has recently become passionate about a new research area: the intersection of science and religion.

“Most of the people on this planet have a worldview that is religiously based, even if they’re not religious themselves. [We all] bring something to the discussion of how we interpret science or how we deal with changes in the environment — major environmental issues or food issues that might be agricultural- or freshwater-related issues,” he says.

Dr. Olson’s current area of focus is ecotheology, the connection between ecology or environmentalism and religion.

“Religion has been blamed an awful lot for…environmental degradation,” he says. “Understanding our religious attitudes may help us find common approaches for developing realistic solutions. The possibilities make me very happy because I love religious studies, and of course I still love my science.”

Not as many scientists venture into theology as vice versa, he adds. He calls himself “one of those."

Connecting research and the classroom

Dr. Olson says he and Raj Lada, professor and environmental sciences department head, have talked about incorporating this area of combined disciplines into the curriculum. It could take the form of a directed studies or special topics seminar class in ecotheology offered as an elective for fourth-year students.

“We may, for example, have these senior students looking at the view from Islam or the view from Hinduism and how they would interpret . . . some sort of an environmental concern. Is there something within their faith worldview that would say, ‘We have to deal with it this way’?”

Such a class would give students a chance to explore new and different subject matter.

Dr. Olson also hopes to host a symposium at the Agricultural Campus where speakers would discuss ecotheological approaches to an environmental issue relevant on a regional, national or global scale.

The fact that various religious worldviews may cause people to interact differently with the environment has implications for the implementation of any global problem-solving strategy, he says.

“It just has a complete cascade effect. It captivates me.”


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