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Enlisting faiths in fight to save the planet: in-depth article on religion and conservation

December 6, 2015:

HRH the Duke of Edinburgh meets Betsy Gaines at Lambeth Palace

The Bozeman Daily Chronicle has published a wonderful in-depth article about the importance of religions in protecting the planet. It's a great read.

Link here for the event pages on Lambeth meeting, including agenda and delegates

Photographs of Lambeth on FLICKR

By Gail Schontzler

In China, Taoist monks are encouraging people to switch to plants instead of using the elephant ivory and endangered animal parts long favored by traditional Chinese medicine.

His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh founded ARC in 1995
In Egypt, the Grand Mufti has promoted teaching climate change in Islamic schools, using renewable energy in mosques, printing the Koran on recycled paper and adopting green practices in pilgrimages.

In Rome, Pope Francis has issued a major encyclical, or teaching, calling on the world’s nations and 1 billion Catholics to take action to combat climate change, to protect both people and the planet.

In ways large and small, the globe’s religious faiths are taking action on behalf of the environment.

Betsy Gaines Quammen of Bozeman, a lifelong environmentalist, says secular conservation groups need to do a better job of working with faith groups.

“To get people to act differently, we need to affect hearts and minds,” Gaines Quammen said. “Religions move people’s hearts and minds all the time.”

She traveled to London to participate in last month’s meeting of ARC, the Alliance for Religions and Conservation.

The ARC meeting was bookended by two dramatic events. Just days before, Islamic extremists killed 130 people in Paris, highlighting the violence that can be committed in the name of religion. Just days later, world leaders gathered in Paris for the United Nations Climate Change Conference, demonstrating humanity’s capacity for cooperation.

At ARC’s London meeting, a group of about 40 people from China to Kenya, France to Indonesia came together to start drafting a handbook to help conservation groups learn to understand, respect and work with religious groups to tackle environmental problems.

England’s Prince Phillip, Queen Elizabeth’s husband, founded ARC in 1995, when he was president of World Wildlife Fund International. Phillip told an interviewer that he felt lectures, films and books were reaching the educated middle classes on the need to protect the environment, but to reach people in areas at greatest risk, it would take local leaders who could speak to local people in terms of faith.

“If your religion tells you … that the Creation of the world was an act of God, then it follows naturally that … you ought to look after His Creation,” Phillip said.

At 94, the prince is still active in ARC and attended the November workshops at Lambeth Palace, home of the archbishops of Canterbury. Gaines Quammen said the prince has a “very firm handshake. He’s elegant, ramrod straight and really looks you in the eye.”

For the first time, the ARC meeting was co-sponsored by the Nature Conservancy and SNAP, the Science for Nature and People partnership. Gaines Quammen sees that as progress. Years ago, she said, the board of one wildlife organization asked its president not to attend ARC’s meeting in Assisi, Italy, because it would “look bad” to mix with faith leaders.

“In the United States, there is still such a schism between religions and science,” Gaines Quammen said. “There is so much distrust.”

Religion and conservation historically have spoken different languages and had different goals, she said.

Scientists speak in terms of data — religious leaders speak in human stories. The goal of conservation groups is to seek to save species and reduce carbon — the goal of religions is to seek salvation, redemption or transcendence.

And especially in the United States, ever since Darwin people have tended to polarize into camps, believing either in science and evolution, or God and religion. That can create barriers for conservationists, when more than 80 percent of the world’s people are reportedly religious.

Now 47 and married to nationally known nature writer David Quammen, she founded the nonprofit Tributary Fund a decade ago to work on conservation in Mongolia and bringing faith and environmental activism together. The nonprofit has since dissolved, transferring its resources into a fund that works to protect Mongolia’s endangered taimen salmon. Gaines Quammen said she left to write her Ph.D. dissertation in Montana State University’s environmental history program. From working with Buddhist monks in Mongolia, she became a Buddhist. “I really like their emphasis on compassion for all living beings,” she said.

Gaines Quammen said she became frustrated years ago that conservation groups seemed to be speaking only to their own “converted” and failing to build a broader base of support. Conservationists tend to talk about “parts per million” instead of values that move people. Instead of talking about “trees,” they speak of “resources” and measure them by their monetary value.

“Conservationists haven’t done a very good job of reaching a very broad demographic. They tend to reach people they already agree with,” she said.

Religious groups can be incredibly effective in activism, she said, citing their work against hunger, homelessness and Vietnam War, and for the U.S. civil rights movement. “People listen to their ministers,” she said.

As one project to bring religion and conservation together, Gaines Quammen has encouraged churches to plant pollinator gardens, to benefit honeybees that have been hurt by pesticides, habitat loss, parasites and disease. Honey and gardens are included in the sacred texts of several faiths.

In Mongolia, the Tributary Fund worked to get environmental training for Buddhist monks, who then talked to their people and inspired them to fight mining pollution and patrol for poachers of the threatened salmon.

Conservationists need to do a better job of appealing to people, rather than condescending and acting like “’I’m smart and you’re not,’” Gaines Quammen said.

And religious leaders need to do a better job of communicating “there’s a moral responsibility to taking care of the planet.”

“We both really need each other,” she said.

Caring for Creation

Bozeman faith leaders say religions today are tackling global warming and the environment in a serious way.

A Catholic priest, Jewish rabbi, a devout Muslim, Mormon spokesman and Protestant minister talked about the environment in an interview Wednesday after the monthly Gallatin Valley Interfaith Forum, attended by about 50 people at Congregation Beth Shalom.

“The pope raised this to a very, very high level” with his encyclical, said Father Leo Proxell of Holy Rosary Church. “We as Catholics are bound to take it very seriously.”

There has been a schism between religion and science since the 18th century Enlightenment, Proxell said, and ever since the two sides have been “throwing rocks” at each other.

But, Proxell added, “This is an issue we can really come together on. We have a responsibility to take care of the Earth — God created it.”

Islam’s prophet Mohammed teaches followers to be conscientious about the world and not waste food or water, said Shadmani Amin, a Muslim woman who wears a headscarf. “He has a lot of statements about being concerned about the world. We’re not doing enough. Being an environmentalist is practicing the teachings of Mohammed, peace be upon him.”

Rabbi Ed Stafman said the Jews have never had a schism with science or the environment. Their holy days, he said, are tied to nature and events like the harvest and bringing light in the darkest time of year.

Stafman said nearly 10,000 people, including about 30 from Bozeman, attended last summer’s Parliament of the World’s Religions in Salt Lake City, where sustainability and global warming were major topics of concern.

The Rev. Jody McDevitt of First Presbyterian Church said the interfaith Parliament talked about climate change and Hurricane Katrina’s devastation and people in Greenland seeing their ice melt.

“We have to do something,” McDevitt said, “and we have the spiritual resources.”

Dave Johnston, public affairs director for the Bozeman Stake of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, said the Mormon Church teaches that, “from the time Adam and Eve were created, one of our primary responsibilities is to care for the Earth.”


Until 20 or 30 years ago, environmental conservation was a relatively foreign idea for most evangelical Protestants, said Jay Smith, president of the Yellowstone Theological Institute, which plans to build a Baptist seminary on South 19th Avenue.

“The focus has been on salvation,” Smith said. But in recent decades, to be “stewards of creation … this has become a big movement.”

“I think it’s important we make that bridge, and start looking at a more holistic understanding of the Earth, and looking at salvation, not just as an eternal relationship with God, but also … Creation keeping,” he said.

Baptists are a large and diverse group nationally, Smith said, but issues like global warming are important to a growing number of church members, especially among the millennial generation of 20- and 30-year-olds.

When constructed, the new theological institute — where Gaines Quammen has started teaching Asian religions — will have trails and places where people can stop and look out at the mountains for spiritual reflection.

“It will allow us,” Smith said, “to reflect on the things that reflect God’s glory back to us.”

A different kind of evangelist is Elizabeth “Lizzie” McLeod, a climate adaptation scientist with the Nature Conservancy, based in Austin, Texas.

McLeod said she and Martin Palmer of ARC dreamed up the London meeting to figure out how conservationists can do a better job of reaching out to religious groups and forming partnerships.

“We’re in two separate worlds,” McLeod said. “Some people think it’s crazy. Some think it’s obvious — why haven’t we been doing this for years?”

One of the most exciting things to come out of the ARC meeting was the idea of creating regional networks and online hubs where people can share examples of partnerships that work, like working in Indonesia with local imams to stop practices that harm the environment or advocating against dynamite fishing.

Conservationists have been talking about the economic value of nature, instead of larger values, McLeod said. “We’re alienating people, commoditizing nature.”

An added benefit of working with faith groups, she said, is that such partnerships “can give force and energy and sustainability to the conservation movement.”

With faith, she said, people “make a commitment for generations.”


Read the full article here

Link here for the Lambeth meeting agenda

Interview with HRH Prince Philip about founding ARC

PDF of the press release


Link here for the meeting press release.

Link here for the project page including meeting agenda and delegates

Photographs of Lambeth on FLICKR

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