Ask the Conservationist

What Can Conservation Learn from Religion?

It can seem like religion and science are at odds—the controversy over teaching creationism vs. evolution in U.S. schools is a prime example. But dig a little deeper and there are many commonalities.

Could religion actually help environmentalists solve some of the huge problems facing our planet? One Conservancy scientist says “yes” and has examples to prove it.

Read her answer below.

Dan Huston of White Plains, NY, writes:

More than 80 percent of the U.S. population has a religion affiliation, yet the conservation community is often silent on this topic. Do you think this is a mistake? Couldn’t conservation benefit from partnering with religious communities?

Elizabeth Mcleod, a climate adaptation scientist for The Nature Conservancy’s Asia-Pacific region, replies:

If I asked you to name your favorite natural place, chances are you wouldn’t answer with a place that provides fresh water to drink or a wetland that protects the coastline from flooding, even though these are certainly important. It is likely a place that makes you feel something, a place that fills you with awe; that has a sense of wonder.

Conservationists often do a fabulous job of cataloguing creation, but they often fail to acknowledge the wonder of it. We need the help of those who embrace that wonder and awe—the religious community.

The challenge is that religious groups and secular conservation organizations can have differing worldviews. To further exacerbate this problem, many conservation scientists are reluctant to discuss religion or how faith does or does not play a role in their professional lives.

But I’d argue that we have more in common than we think. There are really inspiring examples around the world demonstrating what good can be accomplished when we do work together.

For example, Misali Island in Tanzania was devastated by dynamite fishing techniques that threatened critical turtle nesting beaches and some of the most important coral reef areas in the Western Indian Ocean. Government efforts to ban dynamite fishing failed and the communities were in danger of losing fish they depended on for survival. With help from the Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Science, the Alliance of Religions and Conservation, and the World Wildlife Fund, the community explored Islamic teachings about the use of God’s creation and determined that destructive fishing practices were illegal according to Islam. They used passages from the Qur’an to show the importance of protecting vital fishing sources and were able to stop destructive fishing and successfully conserve this area.

In the United States, a group of 86 US Evangelical Christian leaders launched in 2006 the Evangelical Climate Initiative, a campaign for environmental reform, calling on all Christians to push for federal legislation that would reduce carbon dioxide emissions in an effort to reduce global warming. As of mid-2011, over 220 evangelical leaders have signed this call to action.

Groups like the Evangelical Environmental Network are dedicated to educating, inspiring, and mobilizing Christians to care of God's creation, be faithful stewards of God's provision, and advocate for actions and policies that honor God and protect the environment. They have lobbied Congress and produced biblical educational materials to Evangelical congregations across the country to encourage care for the Earth.

What makes many of these efforts so successful is that they are either grounded in a common worldview, or the partners are able to negotiate beyond different worldviews to achieve a common goal.

Religious groups have the potential to contribute significantly to conservation efforts. In addition to their capacity to shape world views, religious groups have moral authority, a large base of adherents, significant resources, and community building capacity. But what’s most important is this. Faith can offer the conservation movement hope: hope that through the insights of the conservation community and the faith of people worldwide, we can begin to reverse the destruction and create a future for our children where respect and care for nature drive environmentally responsible choices.

Originally posted in November 2012.


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