The reverence and awe evoked by sacred natural sites and species provide a powerful motivation for environmental conservation. If people revere or fear a place, plant, or animal, that sets it apart from everything else as something to treat with special care and respect. In many cases, it makes the object of reverence priceless, so that putting a monetary value on it can even appear to be a form of desecration. Programmes of environmental conservation that seek to be sustainable will find it helpful to elicit the kind of deep-seated meanings and values that sacred sites and species highlight in bold relief. Otherwise, they risk failing to win the support of the stakeholders most concerned, especially if those stakeholders belong to traditional cultures. This is true not only of indigenous peoples and traditions; it also applies to modern, secular societies. To gain lasting support of the general public as well as local communities, programmes of environmental conservation need to be grounded not only in solid scientific research and practice, but also in deeply held spiritual, cultural, and aesthetic values and ideas that will engage and inspire people to care for nature over the long term and make the sacrifices necessary to protect the environment.
Sacred mountains: views and metaphors
Of all the various kinds of natural sacred sites, the largest and most comprehensive are sacred mountains. If we consider a mountain from its base to its summit, it can include representatives of all environments and ecosystems – from jungle and deserts to tundra and glaciers. In the case of Hawaiian volcanoes, such as Mauna Loa and Kilauea, they even incorporate underwater systems extending into the depths of the world's deepest ocean. This means that sacred mountains have the potential to reveal the diverse ways that people revere features of nature found not only in mountain landscapes, but elsewhere in the environment, such as plains and forests. Knowledge of these ways can be key to inspiring people of different cultures and traditions and enlisting their support for conserving biological and cultural diversity throughout the world (Bernbaum, 1997a) (Figure 6.1).