Paul Alan Cox
Executive Director, Institute for Ethnomedicine
I founded Seacology, a not-for-profit organization headquartered in Berkeley, California. Seacology helps indigenous peoples on islands throughout the world protect their habitats and cultures. We do this by building schools, medical clinics, water supplies, and other public works in return for covenants by the villagers to protect their rainforests and coral reefs. So far, we have preserved about 1.5 million acres of island habitats in returning for building over 200 schools and community projects in 147 islands in 501 countries around the world.
How did you become interested in ethnobotany?
As a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I learned the Samoan language and later learned to speak Tongan and other island languages. When pioneering ethnobotanist Richard Evan Schultes at Harvard learned that I spoke Polynesian languages, he encouraged me to pursue ethnobotany. Although my Ph.D. dissertation was on rainforest biology, I later began to focus on ethnomedicine after my mother died from breast cancer.
You’ve been involved in quite a few environmental efforts. Can you tell us about them and how you became involved in them?
As a young boy, I used to pray every night that God would protect the plants and animals of the world. My father, mother, grandfather, and great grandfather were all involved in creating national parks, wildlife reserves, and in protecting wildlife species.
My first major environmental effort was as a high school student in analyzing the environmental impacts of a 600 megawatt coal burning power plant that had been planned for the Kaiparowits plateau in what is now the Escalante Grand Staircase National Monument. It was feared that the smoke plumes from the plant would significantly degrade air quality in the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, and Zion Canyon national parks. Knowing that the coal has a slight amount of radioactivity, I forecast that the total radioactive emmisions over the 35 year lifespan of the plant would exceed federal standards for nuclear power plants.
I next analyzed environmental impacts of a proposed road corridor down Provo canyon. I found that Provo Canyon per passenger mile was one of the safest roads in the State, and represented a threat primarily to interstate truckers. I was hired as a staff ecologist for the Utah State Department of Transportation, and was able to help mitigate impacts of road construction throughout the state.
My third effort as a student was in studying the impacts of a ski resort proposed for the water shed above Provo, Utah. When I saw that there was no provision in the developers’ plans for sewage removal, fire supression, water pipes, trash removal, etc. I began to suspect that the resort plan was a ruse to transfer 600 acres of state land at the base into private ownership for condo development. Although the ski resort was not built, this land transfer took place and now the area is filled with condos and a water park.
On receiving my Ph.D., I was hired by the Governors of Utah and Nevada to analyze the MX missile environmental impact statement (EIS) which had been developed for the U.S. Air Force by an independent contractor at a cost of $54 million. As staff ecologist, I decided to resample the vegetation data for each proposed missile silo. I discovered that Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) was deficient, and that the EIS would have to be rewritten. When the First Presidency came out against the MX missile, President Ronald Reagan decided to stop the project.
Later in my career, I proposed the 50th national park of the United States; President Ronald Reagan signed our bill establishing the National Park of American Samoa. At the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) I led the effort to protect island flying foxes. Through Seacology, I have been involved in establishing island preserves throughout the world.
How has your personal and professional background affected the way you think about environmental stewardship?
My father developed state parks, my mother was a fisheries biologst, my grandfather helped to create national parks, and my grandfather was an early advocate of Arbor Day, so conservation is a tradition in our family.
How does the Gospel affect how you think about earth stewardship?
Poor people in the world cannot buffer the impacts of water and air pollution on their lives. In that sense, environmental degradation represents a regressive tax on the poor. The recent statement of the church on environmental stewardship and conservation states that “all humankind are stewards over the earth and should gratefully use what God has given, avoid wasting life and resources and use the bounty of the earth to care for the poor and the needy.”
What is one message you would like to convey to members of the Church about stewardship?
If you love the Artist, don’t slash His painting.
You can find out more about Paul Cox’s work from the websites of the Institute for Ethnomedicine and Seacology. Dr. Cox has written many articles and several books, including Nafanua: Saving the Samoan Rainforest, which has also been made into a documentary movie. Also see a short video about his work.
This is the seventh of a series of profiles of Church members that exemplify stewardship in some aspect of their lives. We hope to show the diverse and wonderful ways that Church members show respect and wise use of the earth’s resources. If you would like to suggest someone to highlight in the future, let us know!