Image 1: © Rita Clagett
Image 1: © Rita Clagett

In the tiny western Colorado town of Paonia, a weekly Buddhist meditation circle includes a carpenter, an editor, a metal worker, a photographer, and as it so happens, the father of conservation biology. When the meditation periods conclude, it is the biologist who often asks, only half in jest, “Did anyone get enlightened)” Even in the pursuit of nonself, Michael Soulé can’t entirely escape his ambition, which has driven him all his life.

His ambition served him well through several professorships, through founding a discipline with the unabashed aim of saving the ecosystems it analyzed, and through cofounding an environmental group that aims to reestablish large carnivores over much of North America. No scientist has done more for the cause of reserving biodiversity than Soulé, according to Stanford University ecologist Paul Ehrlich, who was Soulé’s graduate school advisor in the early 1960s. Nature writer David Quammen calls Soulé a theoretical “wizard.” But these days, Soulé’s ambition is softening into something like aspiration. And he’s broadening the boundaries of his inquiry to include, well, everything.

“Scientific inquiry leads to the conclusion that everything is connected,” said Soulé, a trim, sharp-featured man wearing jeans and a battered cowboy hat. He could be defining karma itself when he talks about ecology, which he considers “the most profoundly connective discipline in biology: When you push one place, the effect can cascade throughout an ecosystem and end up in unpredictable changes somewhere else.”

This dynamic extends beyond the confines of the natural world.

“When we look for ways to stop the extinction crisis, we keep coming up against problems like greed,” he said. “Most people feel they live in a world of scarcity. They feel if they are too generous, they won’t have enough for themselves; that happiness is the reward of self-indulgence.

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