How religion can help biodiversity – bringing conservation into the conversation

Religion for many is their moral compass, their ethical guidelines. The environmental-decision-making paper of interest crossing my desk today calls on religious leaders around the world, and particularly Pope Francis, to bring biodiversity and conservation into the conversations and practices of their faiths.

The authors of the paper compared areas critical to biodiversity conservation with areas of religious belief around the globe. They found a strong overlap between regions with high conservation needs and the world’s great religions. The majority of the most important biodiversity sites fall in countries which are predominantly Christian, and particularly Roman Catholic, although there are several overlapping with Hinduism, Islam and Buddhism.

Co-author Professor Hugh Possingham from Australia’s ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions (CEED) and The University of Queensland explains “Stewardship and conservation are closely related ideas, and this offers hope for mutual progress. Our hope is that members of religious communities, who have for centuries guided people with respect to right and wrong, may feel they have a moral obligation to conserve the world’s natural wealth for future generations and could become powerful advocates for conservation.”

“These results indicate that Roman Catholics, per capita, have the greatest potential to save global biodiversity where they live,” says Prof. Possingham. “Let’s hope that [Pope Francis] and other religious leaders will seriously consider the opportunity to engage more actively in the conservation debate. Moreover, conservation researchers must actively encourage religious leaders to participate in such a debate.”

The article argues that most governments have failed to stem the degradation of the world’s natural resources, including biodiversity – and now it may be up to religion. Most people don’t think about biodiversity and conservation as part of their everyday activities. That keeping-it-as-something-“other” is part of the problem, part of a false sense of needing to “balance” between nature and profit. The paper’s authors call for a reshaping of ethical attitudes to nature, and bringing protection of biodiversity back into the everyday.

The paper: Grzegorz Mikusiński, Hugh P. Possingham and Malgorzata Blicharska. Biodiversity priority areas and religions—a global analysis of spatial overlap. Oryx, available on CJO2013. doi:10.1017/S0030605312000993.

CEED is the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions. CEED’s research tackles key gaps in environmental decision making, monitoring and adaptive management.

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