I mean the natural world here. Yes, the suggestion might at first seem counterintuitive (perhaps even obscene) given the fierce opposition to any restraint on rapacious commerce and “development” that became, rightly or wrongly, intertwined with fundamentalist religion in the conservative coalition in America we have known for most of the last decade. But of course the situation is more nuanced than that. Even among American Christians, a greener outlook has been taking hold in recent years, and it appears that this sentiment transcends particular religious sects (see, for example, the arcworld website linked below). For most religious people, obviously, there are more important concerns than the environment. But that is equally true of non-religious people.
I was led down this thread of rumination by an interesting letter to Nature this past week, which is reproduced verbatim below. The potential value of appealing to people’s religious views in environmental conservation also resonates strongly with the message from Randy Olson’s new book “Don’t be such a scientist“, which is basically that you can get a lot more mileage for your message by aiming for the heart, gut, and libido than by making clever academic arguments and citing tables of facts. The argument below seems pretty persuasive to me.
Conservation: the world’s religions can help
Shonil Bhagwat & Martin Palmer
The world’s religions are emerging as a surprising driver of support for conservation of biological diversity.
The International Interfaith Investment Group, for example, which is collectively worth more than US$7 trillion, is encouraging religious organizations to change their current investment policies in favour of those that support conservation.
In addition, lands owned by these organizations can contribute to the conservation of biodiversity because of their protected status. More than 7% of Earth’s land surface is owned by religious institutions, and a further 8% has sacred links (http://www.arcworld.org). Given that most countries will never be able to designate more than 15% of their land as protected areas (S. Chape et al. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 360, 443–455; 2005), territory with religious and sacred affiliations contributes substantially to maintaining biodiversity.
It should also be possible to raise funding for conservation by appealing to donors who have religious faith. For example, the wealthy countries of the G20 group that have large religious populations might step in and help.
The focus of initiatives in the past has been on paying for ecosystem services, which are considered ‘natural capital’ (R. Costanza et al. Nature 387, 253–260; 1997), but an appeal to support native communities on religious grounds might prove more persuasive in a difficult economic climate.
Of the 125 countries that are represented in the Conservation International list of biodiversity hotspots, most have a low per-capita gross domestic product (GDP) and a strong religious base (http://tinyurl.com/2b2kg9). Collectively, these countries are home to more than 4 billion people affiliated with one of 11 mainstream faiths; more than half of them have a total population of 3 billion and a per-capita GDP of less than US$5,000.
Religious sympathy has the potential to make a major contribution towards biodiversity conservation. This contribution could be extremely valuable in the approach to the 2010 target of the Convention on Biological Diversity.