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Preaching for the Environment

A Heliconius Charitonius is seen in the butterfly exhibit at the National Biodiversity Park near Heredia, Costa Rica (File Photo)
A Heliconius Charitonius is seen in the butterfly exhibit at the National Biodiversity Park near Heredia, Costa Rica (File Photo)

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Joe DeCapua
Throughout history, there have been many groups and cultures that have worshiped the Earth or nature. While the world’s major organized religions do not hold to those beliefs, some scientists say today’s religious leaders could play a key role in protecting the environment.


Ecologist Grzegorz Mikusinski believes a little faith may go a long way in helping to preserve biodiversity. He and his colleagues have studied how people of different religions are distributed around the world. Many live in areas where biodiversity may be at risk from climate change, development or other factors.

“Christians and especially Roman Catholics are most numerous in the countries where there is a lot of biodiversity. It’s obvious that South America is very, very important here – Brazil, Ecuador and so on. And all these countries are strongly Catholic. And then the United States, Mexico and then some countries in Africa – those countries that are in this belt of very high biodiversity along the equator,” said Mikusinski, an associate professor at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences.

He said there’s a certain amount of overlapping of religions and biodiversity, such as Buddhism in Southeast Asia, Hindu in the Indian subcontinent and Islam in Asia Minor and regions of North and Central Africa. He says the environment is not usually a topic of sermons or speeches to the faithful, but perhaps it should be.

“I’ve actually been a member of [the] Catholic Church many, many years and I have to tell you, frankly, that, I don’t know, maybe I’ve listened to 1,500 preaching priests and I’ve never heard a word – or very little, I think never – about being more modest in your way you are using the resources.”

Caring for the environment, he said, would be in religious communities’ best interests.

“Religious congregations own about, I think, if I recall well, seven percent of the land on the Earth and then [an] additional eight percent are considered as being sacred lands. So, actually 15 percent – that is [a] very high number – is directly linked to religions, so to speak.”

His colleague at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences -- Malgorzata Blicharka – is co-author of the study. She wrote that conservation strategies are needed which “can change people’s ethical attitudes towards nature and encourage modes of thinking and lifestyles that are good for the environment.” Mikusinski agrees.

“We have a moral obligation to secure a decent living for coming generations. This is common for almost all religions. We are using more and more resources per capita. And of course in the long run it’s not sustainable,” he said.

He admitted it’s a complicated issue. For example, it’s difficult to ask the poor to use even fewer resources than they do now.

Another co-author of the study, Hugh Possihngham of the University of Queensland in Australia, wrote, “Roman Catholics, per capita, have the greatest potential to preserve biological diversity where they live.” 

Mikusinski pointed out that Francis of Assisi is the Roman Catholic patron saint of animals and ecology. And now, the current pope is named Francis. He said that he hopes Pope Francis will take an active role in protecting biodiversity.

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