The International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources convenes its World Conservation Congress every four years. So this year’s gathering in Honolulu, Hawaii, which continues through Saturday, September 10, is held in the shadow of the World Wildlife Fund’s 2014 report claiming that in just 40 years, over half of the world’s wildlife has been lost.
Until recently, the conservation movement has been overwhelmingly secular. But the sense here is that this is a moral and even a spiritual crisis. As Gus Speth, who helped found the Natural Resources Defense Council and was dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, told a British radio presenter in 2013:
I used to think that top global environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse, and climate change. I thought that with 30 years of good science we could address these proble ms, but I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed, and apathy, and to deal with these we need a spiritual and cultural transformation. And we scientists don’t know how to do that.
Reflecting this shift in emphasis, a “Spirituality Journey” is included in this year’s conference program for the first time. The conference’s location in the Pacific region, where spiritual life is less segregated from public life than in Europe, may also make a difference. At the opening ceremony, in language that differed markedly from previous Congresses, “Our heavenly Father” was thanked for his “creation.”
Indeed, many conservation professionals and scientists, particularly but not at all exclusively from the Global South, have a living Christian faith. Integrating it into their working lives can be a real challenge, however. They work with paradigms and language, such as “natural resource management” or “ecosystem services,” that took shape before the days of Christian involvement. Consider the contrast with medical work, for example, which developed worldwide, over many centuries, out of specifically Christian compassion.
Perhaps because of this rootlessness (it has been said that environmentalism is “an ethic in search of a religion”), and also because policy-makers and ordinary people so often seem disengaged from the clear and present danger to biodiversity, the global conservation movement is urgently searching for clarity about why nature matters. Currently there are two leading proposals: that nature matters because we need it to survive as a human species, and that nature has intrinsic value.
Both of these ideas find echoes in the Christian gospel, but neither is adequate on its own. Christians could point to the global, indeed cosmic, sweep of Paul’s language of “reconciling all things” (Col. 1:20), to the picture of the entire creation groaning as it awaits humanity’s liberation from our own enslavement to sin and the exploitation it brings (Rom. 8:19-24), and to Psalm 104, one of the earliest and most beautiful hymns to biodiversity, with its conviction that God has made everything in love and wisdom.
But deeper Christian engagement with the conservation movement will expose some uncomfortable truths. A Rocha is the only international Christian conservation organization present among 9,000 delegates at the Congress. If this were a comparable international event on human development or disaster relief, over half the organizations present would acknowledge a Christian identity or history.